Alice in Wonderland (1951)

Directors: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske
Screenplay: Winston Hibler & Ted Sears & Bill Peet & Erdman Penner & Joe Rinaldi & Milt Banta & William Cottrell & Dick Kelsey & Joe Grant & Dick Huemer & Del Connell & Tom Oreb & John Walbridge (based on the novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll)
Voices: Kathryn Beaumont (Alice), Ed Wynn (Mad Hatter), Richard Haydn (Caterpillar), Sterling Holloway (Cheshire Cat), Jerry Colonna (March Hare), Verna Felton (Queen of Hearts), Pat O’Malley (Tweedledee / Tweedledum / The Walrus / The Carpenter), Bill Thompson (White Rabbit / Dodo), Heather Angel (Lorina), Joseph Kearns (Doorknob), Larry Grey (Bill), Queenie Leonard (Bird in the Tree), Dink Trout (King of Hearts), Doris Lloyd (The Rose), James MacDonald (Dormouse)
MPAA Rating: G
Year of Release: 1951
Country: U.S.
Alice in Wonderland Blu-Ray
Alice in WonderlandEver since he was a boy, Walt Disney had been fascinated by Lewis Carroll’s groundbreaking 19th-century children’s novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The imaginative sense of fantasy, clever wordplay, and elaborate nonsense had captured young Disney’s imagination and had a profound impact on his own growth as an artist and animator. It is no surprise, then, that Disney used Carroll’s books as inspiration for his first forays into animation and that he endeavored to turn them into a feature-length animated film as soon as such an idea seemed feasible. However, translating Carroll’s prose into a workable feature film turned out to be more difficult than anticipated. It was only after several failed attempts--one of which was curtailed by Paramount releasing its own live-action Alice film in 1933 and one of which was sidelined by the outbreak of World War II--that Disney was able to bring Alice’s adventures to the big screen in 1951, making it the company’s thirteenth animated feature.

Unfortunately, the resulting film, bearing the title Alice in Wonderland (which Disney had registered with the MPPDA back in 1938), is one of Disney’s weakest and most uncharacteristic films. While it maintains many of Carroll’s most familiar and beloved characters and scenarios, there is no coherent narrative or thematic thread linking them. The film plays as a series of colorful, but uneven setpieces that lack an interesting or emotionally engaging heroine to tie them together. Disney’s Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) is a truly two-dimensional cipher whose primary purpose is to wander from scenario to scenario and display a modest, ever-so-British amount of surprise, delight, etc. at the strange events that befall her. To be fair, this was one of the consistent weaknesses of early, exclusively reactive Disney heroines (starting with Snow White), but if ever there were an opportunity to enliven a story with a strong, intriguing female presence, Alice was it. As is, the only thing we know about Alice is that she is easily bored by her older sister and doesn’t like books that don’t have pictures. When she takes off after the fabled white rabbit (Bill Thompson), it is less a sign of her impudence and headstrong desire for adventure than it is a plot necessity.

The film does hold out a few distinct pleasures, particularly its visual approach, which eschews the fine-lined, detailed approach of John Tenniel’s illustrations in the original printings of Carroll’s books in favor of a slightly more abstract, cartoonish look, which heightens the story’s surreal nature. It looks forward to the modernist, hand-sketched look of One Hundred and One Dalmatians (1961), rather than back at the more painterly, storybook look of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937), Pinocchio (1940), and Bambi (1942). Alice in Wonderland is also one of Disney’s most intriguing attempts to meld music and imagery. While it sticks to the classic Disney musical mold, it also expands the formula by inserting numerous short musical bits that were designed primarily to incorporate as much of Carroll’s poetic verbiage as possible. Thus, Alice in Wonderland has more songs in it than any other Disney film, although many of them are only a few seconds in length.

Yet, it is hard not to feel that Alice in Wonderland is somehow smaller than it should be. Especially since Disney had been trying to get this film off the ground for the better part of two decades, one would imagine something more sprawling and--dare I say it?--daring. While all the usual suspects are in attendance, including the tricky Cheshire Cat (Sterling Holloway), the temperamental and axe-happy Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton), the Mad Hatter (Ed Wynn), and the hooka-smoking blue caterpillar (Richard Haydn), it all feels a bit too tamped down for its own good, as if Disney were afraid to delve past the obvious surface of Carroll’s tricky, satirical madness and truly embrace the uncanny delights it offers.

Alice in Wonderland 60th Anniversary Edition DVD + Blu-Ray

Aspect Ratio1.33:1
  • English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround
  • English Dolby Digital 1.0 monaural
  • French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 surround
  • SubtitlesEnglish, French, Spanish
  • “Through the Keyhole: A Companion’s Guide to Wonderland”
  • “Disney View” expanded viewing experience
  • “Painting the Roses Red” game
  • Walt Disney color TV introduction (1959)
  • Reference footage of Alice and the Doorknob
  • Pencil test of Alice shrinking
  • “I’m Odd” Cheshire Cat Song with intro
  • Thru the Mirror Mickey Mouse animated short
  • Art gallery
  • “Reflections on Alice” featurette
  • “Operation Wonderland” featurette
  • One Hour in Wonderland 1950 television special
  • An Alice Comedy: Alice’s Wonderland animated short
  • Original theatrical trailers
  • Walt Disney TV introduction
  • Excerpt from The Fred Waring Show
  • Deleted scene
  • “From Wonderland to Neverland: The Evolution of a Song” featurette
  • Deleted storyboard concept
  • Original song demos: “Beware the Jabberwock,” “Everything Has a Useness,” “So They Say,” “Beautiful Soup,” “Dream Caravan,” and “If You’ll Believe in Me”
  • DistributorWalt Disney Studios Home Entertainment
    Release DateFebruary 1, 2010

    While I’m not a huge fan of the film, I can’t find any fault whatsoever with Disney’s magnificent high-definition 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer of Alice in Wonderland. The brightness and sharpness of the image certainly bring out the nuances in the modernist animation, and I can’t remember the colors ever looking so intense and well-saturated, almost surreal at times. The image has not been smoothed out too much, so it still maintains a slightly film-like veneer, although it has clearly been digitally restored given the absolute lack of age or wear. As with their other high-def releases of classic films in the Academy 1.33:1 aspect ratio, this disc gives you the option of watching the film in “Disney View” mode, which fills the black bars to the right and left of the film with beautiful new art (given how busy the image in this film is, having more on either side might feel a bit overwhelming). The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1-channel surround mix works very well, with good depth and spaciousness drawn from the original monaural mix (which is also available for purists).
    Disney’s Blu-Ray of Alice in Wonderland maintains all of the supplements from previous DVD releases, so I will concentrate these comments solely on what is new. The big new addition is “Through the Keyhole: A Companion’s Guide to Wonderland,” a special viewing mode introduced by actress Kathryn Beaumont, the voice of Alice. This mode allows you to watch the film in its entirety alongside a feature-length documentary that includes interviews with Disney and Lewis Carroll scholars and historians and plenty of still images to expand the historical background. It is an engrossing, extremely educational experience. Disney history buffs will enjoy a 1959 color television introduction by Walt Disney that probably hasn’t been seen since it first aired, newly rediscovered black-and-white reference footage of Kathryn Beaumont talking to the doorknob, and a pencil test of the scene in which Alice shrinks. Finally, the Blu-Ray includes a new interactive game, Painting the Roses Red.

    Copyright ©2010 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment

    Overall Rating: (2)

    James Kendrick

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