Disney // 1951 // 75 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Clark Douglas // January 30th, 2011
"It would be so nice if something would make sense for a change."
One day, a young girl named Alice (Kathryn Beaumont, Peter Pan) sees a white rabbit (Bill Thompson, Lady and the Tramp) running by, declaring that he is late for a very important date. Surprised by the fact that the rabbit was indeed talking and immensely curious about where he is going, Alice follows him down the rabbit hole and finds herself in a mysterious place called Wonderland. As she follows the rabbit's trail, she encounters a wide variety of colorful individuals, including Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee (both voiced by J. Pat O'Malley, 101 Dalmatians) , an opium-smoking caterpillar (Richard Haydn, Young Frankenstein), the March Hare (Jerry Colonna, Make Mine Music), The Mad Hatter (Ed Wynn, Mary Poppins), some singing flowers, a lizard with a ladder (Larry Grey, Private Parts), the villainous Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton, The Jungle Book) and many others. Will Alice ever find out where the rabbit is going?
Since the early days of cinema, many filmmakers have attempted to adapt Lewis Carroll's novels Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. The source material is unquestionably rich yet deceptively challenging; many fine filmmakers have stumbled badly in their efforts to translate Carroll's whimsical fantasy to the screen. I love Tim Burton as much as the next man, but his attempt to fuse the material to a standard-issue hero's quest provided a particularly uninspired film. While I don't think any adaptation to date truly does the source material justice, Disney's 1951 animated version of Alice in Wonderland ranks as the most successful attempt to date.
Disney's Alice in Wonderland is a film that has only improved with age, but it certainly didn't get a very warm reception upon its release in 1951. Literary critics were the first to pounce upon the film, claiming that Disney had cheapened Carroll's work with his crass, loony Americanization of the tale. In contrast, American moviegoers also found the film a disappointment, as the film was a trippy, free-wheeling series of peculiar events rather than a more traditional narrative. Essentially, it wasn't classy enough for the critics and it was too artful for the mainstream. Though the film once seemed like a failure on multiple levels, as time passed critics and audiences began to appreciate that Disney had actually found an excellent balance between creating a piece of entertainment and being true to the spirit of Carroll's work.
One of the primary reasons this Alice in Wonderland works so well is that Disney's own sensibilities fuse rather seamlessly with Carroll's. In many adaptations of the tale, it feels as if we are moving along from absurdity to absurdity simply because that's what happens in Carroll's text. It feels natural in the books, but often seems awkward when translated to film. The medium of animation permits Disney to indulge in a certain cartoon logic that serves the story very well, as the filmmakers quickly establish that anything can happen at precisely the moment it needs to. As such, by the time the Queen of Hearts starts playing croquet with flamingos and moles, we see it not as a forced eccentricity but as a natural turn of events. "She's using flamingos as mallets? Of course she is."
The film's many colorful sequences vary somewhat in tone and quality (this is only to be expected given that numerous writers and directors were involved; they were more concerned with making their sequences stand out as highlights rather than fitting seamlessly into the fabric of the film), but this isn't a problem given that the movie has an episodic format, anyway. In some ways, Alice in Wonderland is a slightly more approachable, slapstick-heavy version of Fantasia, with a series of animated shorts connected by the curious, bewildered protagonist. My favorites include the dark fable of "The Walrus and the Carpenter," the caterpillar's enjoyable appearance and Alice's blustery confrontation with the Queen of Hearts, but your mileage may vary. Suffice it to say that there isn't a bad sequence in the entire film; only good ones and great ones. Whether you prefer the sweet elegance of the flowers' musical number or the wackier bit in which the Dodo tries to remove an overgrown Alice from the white rabbit's house, there's something here for animation lovers of all sorts.
Alice in Wonderland was made 60 years ago, but to look at this 1080p/Full Frame transfer you would think it was just finished yesterday. Gracious, this thing is gorgeous. The images just about pop off the screen; at times, there are moments when the colors are awe-inspiringly vibrant. There isn't a scratch or fleck to be found anywhere, nor is there even the faintest amount of color bleeding. Banding? Nope. Artifacting? Nope. This transfer is on par with the very best work Disney has done to date. Wow. The audio is perhaps less stunning, but nonetheless very impressive. It's a very solid mix to begin with in that the sound effects, score and musical numbers work together on a level that few animated films attempt. The sound design is surprisingly complex and nuanced for the era in which the film was made, and it's been given as strong a mix as possible given its age. While nothing is going to blow you away like a strong mix on a modern film would, it's very impressive.
Though this Blu-ray release isn't one of Disney's "Diamond Editions," the extras being offered are still pretty impressive. The new stuff kicks off with "Through the Keyhold: A Companion's Guide to Wonderland" (75 minutes), a picture-in-picture experience which offers loads of interviews, behind-the-scenes footage, photos and more. It's basically an enhanced commentary of sorts and very much a worthwhile watch. Also new is the "DisneyView" enhanced viewing option, which adds nice bits of artwork to the sides of the screen while you watch the film. Kids will enjoy a new interactive game that has been added to the release called "Painting the Roses Red." Also new to this release is some reference footage from the "Alice and the Doorknob" scene (2 minutes), a pencil test from the "Alice Shrinks" scene (1 minute) and a charming intro to the film from Walt Disney himself (1 minute).
In addition, a boatload of older DVD features have been made available for your viewing pleasure: "Reflections on Alice" (13 minutes), "Operation Wonderland" (11 minutes), a recently-discovered Cheshire Cat song called "I'm Odd" (4 minutes), a 1936 Mickey Mouse short called "Thru the Mirror" (9 minutes), a lengthy excerpt from The Fred Waring Show (31 minutes), an additional batch of Disney introductions (4 minutes), a handful of assorted deleted materials (21 minutes), a 1923 short film called "An Alice Comedy: Alice's Wonderland" (8 minutes), and a vintage holiday special centered on the film entitled "One Hour in Wonderland" (59 minutes). Finally, you get some theatrical trailers, an art gallery, and a DVD copy of the film.
This version of Alice in Wonderland certainly isn't for everyone -- numerous individuals who love Disney's animated fairy tales found the film puzzling and frustrating ("I can't stand that one," my mother insists to this day). If you're the sort of viewer who loves Cinderella but finds Fantasia odd and off-putting, you may not dig the film.
The finest cinematic adaptation of Alice in Wonderland to date receives a splendid Blu-ray release. Highly recommended.
Review content copyright © 2011 Clark Douglas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 1951
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Deleted Material
* Reference Footage
* TV Show Excerpts
* Short Film
* Pencil Test
* Art Gallery
* DVD Copy