Disney // 1951 // 75 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Patrick Bromley // April 8th, 2010
A world of wonders in One Great Picture!
Un-Anniversary: (n) 1: A date, likely chosen at random, which does not celebrate an anniversary. Example: My wife and I were married in July, so we celebrate our un-anniversary in October. 2: A shameless excuse to cash in on a live-action remake of a popular property. Example: To capitalize on the hugely successful Tim Burton remake of Alice in Wonderland, Disney is reissuing its classic 1951 telling of Alice in Wonderland in a new two-disc Un-Anniversary Edition.
Young Alice (voiced by Kathryn Beaumont, Peter Pan), bored with her stuffy English upbringing, fantasizes about living in a world of her own creation -- a world ruled by silliness and nonsense. She quickly gets her wish when she follows a white rabbit (frantically worrying about running late) down a hole and into a fantastic, magical Wonderland replete with talking caterpillars and magic mushrooms, the devilish Cheshire Cat, a tea party headed by a Mad Hatter and the wicked Queen of Hearts, who's bent on Alice's execution.
Such a curious film is Walt Disney's 1951 retelling of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. Like most of the films released during they Golden Age of Disney animation, Alice has achieved classic status over the years, though I'm not entirely sure it's deserved. It's a movie made between classics: after the genre-defining masterpiece Pinocchio, before the widescreen spectacle of Sleeping Beauty. Alice in Wonderland plays almost like minor Disney -- it's looser, stranger, and sloppier than the true classics, but also one of the studio's most experimental films and would remain so until The Black Cauldron in 1985.
The biggest problem with Alice is that the folks at Disney never really got a hold on how to adapt it. By trying both to stay true to the spirit of Carroll's original poems and to include as many of them as possible, Alice in Wonderland falls way short on a narrative level -- which is to say there just isn't much of a narrative. This is a movie told in fits and starts, episodic to a degree that it plays almost like an anthology of short films and not like a cohesive whole. Consider the long segment with the Walrus and The Carpenter: it's fun to look at and well-told, but eats up over five minutes of screen time (in a film that runs only 75 minutes) and has nothing to do with the story being told. On one hand, I almost want to applaud Disney for including it -- it's touches like this that help create an overall experience designed to retain the flavor and tone of Carroll -- but it also breaks up any narrative momentum the movie has going for it. This is what happens time and again in Disney's Alice. The story is told in a series of encounters by character who are more like guest stars in a cartoon, while Alice herself never manages to be much of a character because she's too busy being defined by her reactions to everything around her.
Still, the film earns its place within the Disney canon just for its visual inventiveness. The lack of a traditional story in Alice has freed up the animators to create a world packed to the edges of the frame with absurd and surreal imagery. The colors are bright, bold and beautiful (particularly in this remastered transfer) and every few minutes there's something new and terrific to look at, from talking doorknobs to singing flowers to the iconography of the Cheshire Cat, the caterpillar and the Mad Hatter. For all its narrative shortcomings, Alice in Wonderland is rarely boring -- an indication of just how big a mess the script is -- because it's always visually engaging. The best Disney films have worked because of how the animation and storytelling complement one another. Alice doesn't work that way, but the visuals work overtime to compensate for the lack of a compelling story. The movie is a little like improvisational jazz -- it features the best animators of the day flexing a different set of muscles. Is Alice in Wonderland a classic? Not really, but it is a truly interesting misfire, and one I'll take over the safer, less-ambitious films the studio was putting out a decade or so later.
The new two-disc Un-Anniversary Edition of Alice in Wonderland comes jam packed with bonus content, though almost all of it previously appeared on the 2004 Masterpiece Edition DVD of the film. The only extras new to this version are an early deleted scene, "Pig and Pepper," originally designed for a 1939 version of Alice, and an interesting featurette, "Reflections on Alice," which chronicles Disney's near 20-year effort to bring Alice in Wonderland to the screen. The "Virtual Wonderland Party" rounds out the bonus content on the first disc, featuring a whole mess of interactive games, songs and activities that might be fun for kids but could easily be skipped by any viewer over 10.
On the second disc is a host of extra features recycled from previous versions of Alice in Wonderland on DVD. The biggest and best inclusion is the hourlong "One Hour in Wonderland" TV special, featuring several Disney voice actors and a few clips from Disney cartoons (including Song of the South). It's more a novelty than anything else, but it's fun to see the way old show like this were put together and how both movies and television were once sold to audiences; fans of pop culture history should get a big kick out of it. Another cool inclusion for history buffs is the short film billed as "An Alice Comedy: Alice's Wonderland," which is an early attempt at combining live action and animation to tell a version of the Alice story. The promotional featurette "Operation Wonderland" and a half-hour segment of The Fred Waring Show round out the best of the nostalgic historical pieces on the second disc.
There's a large selection of "deleted" material also contained on disc two. "From Wonderland to Neverland" is a short feature on how the song "Beyond the Laughing Sky," originally intended for Alice in Wonderland, eventually evolved into "The Second Star on the Right" in Disney's telling of Peter Pan two years later. An early storyboard sequence for a scene of Alice in the park and six rough song demos comprise the rest of the deleted materials.
The rest of the bonus features are a mixed bag; some are worthwhile, but others feel like filler even for the younger set. There are sing-along versions of both "The Unbirthday Song" and "All in the Golden Afternoon," as well as a fairly annoying interactive game called "Adventures in Wonderland." A song not used in the finished film, "I'm Odd," can be heard over movie stills and concept art, while a trailer gallery takes viewers through a series of trailers from the original release through the movie's multiple reissues; these inclusions are always fun, as they provide a glimpse into the way that movie marketing has changed over time. An Alice-inspired animated short featuring Mickey Mouse, "Thru the Mirror," and a decent-sized artwork gallery round out the plentiful supplemental section.
Alice in Wonderland doesn't hold up alongside the best of Disney's classic films (Pinocchio, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Beauty and the Beast), but it boasts some beautiful animation and a few eye-popping sequences. This one belongs on the shelf of any animation fan or Disney enthusiast. It's really too bad, however, that Disney didn't do a full HD transfer of the film and offer up a Blu-ray for this rerelease. And while the DVD offers a pretty good substitute, there's not much new material here that hasn't already been included on the 2004 Masterpiece Edition (believe it or not, this is the third incarnation of Disney's Alice in Wonderland on DVD, and the format isn't that old). This is, essentially, a double-dip designed to cash in on the Tim Burton version currently playing in theaters. If you don't already have the disc, this new Un-Anniversary Edition is the one to pick up. Everyone else would be better hanging onto their 2004 copy until Disney gives us a proper HD upgrade.
Not Guilty, but not worth a second purchase if you've already got the
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (French)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (Spanish)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 1951
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Deleted Scene
* TV Intros
* Animated Short
* Art Galleries
* Official Site