Disney // 1951 // 75 Minutes // Rated G
Reviewed by Judge Bill Gibron // February 14th, 2004
"Contrariwise," continued Tweedledee, "if it was so, it might
be, and if it were so, it would be; but as it isn't, it ain't. That's
-- Lewis Carroll, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland
Without a doubt, the most significant work of fantasy fiction of all time is Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. From the moment of its first publication in 1866, its images and ideas have launched a dozen careers, a hundred imitators, a thousand interpretations, and a million influences. Whether or not the book (and its companion piece, 1871's Through the Looking Glass) is actually a brazen political satire about class struggle and elitism in England or merely the attempts by a smitten man to gain the "favor" of a young (much younger) lady, no one can deny its brilliance. More than any other work of its kind, Alice has infiltrated our collective cultural consciousness. Surrealist painters like Salvador Dali and Rene Magritte were fascinated by the work and used its nonsense view of reality as philosophy for their obtuse art. The music world has also had many performers utilize Carroll's cracked language for their own wicked verse. John Lennon based the majority of his latter lyrics (and a couple of books of his own) on Alice's wordplay and Victorian eclectics. The Jefferson Airplane scored a huge hit by melting the adventures in Wonderland into the ultimate rock-and-roll head-trip. "White Rabbit" channels the imagery and imagination from the book and packs them into the caterpillar's hookah for a nice long toke (even one of its lyrical catchphrases, "Go Ask Alice," became the title of a shocking book and TV movie in the early 70s). Most recently, science fiction fable The Matrix utilized allusions to Carroll's characters to propel and comment on its futuristic storyline.
So it's no surprise that there are well over 100 adaptations of Alice on film, from early silent excursions to recent, more detailed re-imaginings. It is also no surprise that Walt Disney's 1951 telling of the tale, making a re-appearance this month in a Masterpiece Edition DVD, is considered something of the standard. It has the most recognizable version of the characters this side of John Tenniel's frightening figures from the original published version. But how this movie holds up against the classic volumes themselves has always been a source of debate. This new DVD may not settle the argument anytime soon.
Disney's Alice in Wonderland is actually a strange combination of Carroll's two books, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Many scenes are lifted from the latter work and inserted throughout the vignette-oriented storyline of Alice, the White Rabbit, and the trip down the rabbit hole. Disney's version is thus composed of the following scenes:
Alice spends a sunny afternoon by the river. She is supposed to be learning, but all she wants to do is daydream. Alice has a vivid imagination and fantasizes of a world where everything is backward and nothing is what it seems. Suddenly, a white rabbit appears. He is carrying a pocket watch and fretting aloud over how "late" he is. Intrigued, Alice follows him into a rabbit hole. There she falls down deep into the Earth. She lands in a strange room that requires her to drink magic potions and eat enchanted cookies to escape. Once free, she is determined to explore this Wonderland and find her way back home. Along the way, she meets various residents of this unusual place. There are Tweedledee and Tweedledum, identical twins who love to recite poetry. They tell the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter. Then there is a caterpillar that smokes a hookah pipe and speaks in linguistic riddles. Alice also runs into the Cheshire Cat, a deceptive creature who seems to be simultaneously helping and hindering her. And then there are the participants of a deranged tea party, the March Hare, the Mad Hatter, and the Door Mouse. Eventually, Alice ends up in the court of the Queen of Hearts, an overbearing bully who loves to hand out decapitation-style justice (her favorite phrase is "off with their head!"). A faux pas during a croquet match puts Alice on trial for her life. How she survives and returns to reality is the final episode in a journey filled with odd occurrences.
Walt Disney's Alice in Wonderland is considered by many mainstream filmgoers to be a marvelous, inventive telling of the dense, elliptical fairy tales of Lewis (Rev. Charles Dodgson) Carroll. For some, sadly, it is their only experience with the books. Others view the Disney version as far too tame and light to accurately represent the darkness abounding in Carroll's prose. This always seems to be the case with Alice, as there have been other Hollywood and British incarnations, including a 1933 version with W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty and Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, that have been only moderately successful. Truth be told, Disney's Alice has always been hailed as a classic, when it is a little less superior than that. Walt's Wonderland encompasses the good and the bad of all the interpretations. It has classic hand-drawn animation, awash in sweeping artistic beauty with a sly sinister tone that permeates even the silliest sections. A closer look at the way the animators imagined the Queen of Hearts (a boorish battleaxe), the infamous Tweedles (with that menacing look in their eyes), and the Cheshire Cat (who becomes more and more like Hannibal Lecter with every viewing) indicates that some amount of homage was being paid to Carroll's crazy/scary universe. But there are also many moments when Walt and the boys go for the cutesy and deliver it in satire-dulling cartoon spades. Indeed, there is no desire for Disney to get involved in the dynamics of Alice, the potential social irony and class commentary. Alice just becomes another pawn in the studios staid desire to take literature at less than face value, to superficial it up for the sake of broader box office appeal.
Now, there is nothing wrong with streamlining a complicated, opaque opus like Alice. After all, Carroll wanted the work to be a fiction of exploration, where dreams and nightmares meet up with math and nonsense to host one Hell of a brain-teasing party. His jargon gibberish and crystalline imagery are unmatched...and almost unfilmable. Animation is perhaps the sole proper format to realize his twisted visions (live action, pre-CGI, just can't do it justice). But what Disney does here has always been open to speculation and argument. Some enjoy his mixing of both manuscripts to present a kind of greatest hits of Alice and Carroll. Others are appalled at the liberties taken. Two scenes in particular reflect the opposing viewpoints. On the one hand, there is the marvelous musical recitation by Tweedledum and Tweedledee of the Walrus and the Carpenter. This sequence from Through the Looking Glass has marvelous phrase turns and grand visual poetry. And everything about Disney's version is right on target, starting with the Tweedles themselves. They resemble Tenniel's twin terrors with a nice hint of Saturday morning mania in their actions. Their speech patterns and lines are preciously paraphrased from the pages of the book. And even the song, a catchy, quaint number illustrating the saga of a walrus, his carpenter co-conspirator, and an innocent bed of delicious, dim little oysters, manages to mirror Carroll's quatrains quite effectively. Perhaps the best indicator of how well this sequence works is that, once it's over, it tends to cloud the rest of the movie, making you wait (and wish) for the next section like it. Sadly, it never comes.
When we do get another major set piece, it is the Mad Tea Party scene, and the problems begin. Often cited as an audience favorite, the problems with the Disney version are as obvious as they are profound. The Tea Party is the cornerstone of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland. It is a turning point, a time for her to reap the direct rewards of her desire to dwell in a topsy-turvy world. The joyful, if confusing, characters that she has met have now turned into rude bores, crass and uncontrollable. As the festive occasion stumbles into name-calling and hurt feelings, Alice starts to understand the pitfalls of so-called paradise. Maybe reality has its benefits (and its etiquette) after all. But Walt's world will have none of this demented denouncement. His gathering is all nonsensical delight and animation artistry. Indeed, the imaginative ways in which the Hare and the Hatter handle, pour, and drink their tea is enough to render this sequence a hand-drawn tour de force. Combine this cartoon approach with a catchy song, a bit of tired typecasting (more on this later), and you've got instant consumer satisfaction. The fact that it cheats the book's legacy is not important. The purpose behind Walt's version of the kooky klatch is to make people happy, to have them laughing and tapping their toes. Just like the singing flowers, the cockney cards painting roses, or the roly-poly Cheshire charmer, it can all end up feeling like pandering. There is no desire to delve deeper into anything here. Walt just wants to churn out another animated classic based on his usual formula, enjoy the accolades momentarily, and move on to the next visionary project.
The Tea Party also highlights another predicament with Disney's take on Alice (to be fair, is usually affects all versions of the story). Their heavy reliance on recognizable actors for the work in Wonderland and their indelible (and sometimes, indistinguishable) mark of fame taints some of Carroll's creation. The macabre style of John Tenniel, whose original illustrations are one of the few times when an artist actually "enhanced" an author's written word, is all but absent here. Disney goes for the latest look, the 'hot jazz' angular mode of animation for much of its design and it tends to date things. Alice may be rendered like Snow White, but the backgrounds and characters like the Caterpillar or the Queen have a cool daddy-o Make Mine Music jive about them, all but avoiding their original baroque brashness. They are now mere toon takes on Tenniel's bilious vision (and is it me, or does her Majesty resemble a drag queen Fred Flintstone?). Casting famous faces like Ed Wynne and Jerry Collona (and worse, letting the animators turn Carroll's characters into direct caricatures of the actors) is a perfect example of this precept. Add to the character conundrum the fact that the Mock Turtle, the Griffin, or that most revered of the Reverend's lunacy, the Jabberwocky, all fail to make an appearance, and it seems obvious what's at work here. Walt intends this vision of Alice to be his own, homogenized and simplified so that it conforms to the Disney trademark of family entertainment. He will employ any avenue, no matter how obvious or odious, to achieve his ends and make the movie he wants.
In reality though, Disney's version was never intended as a carbon copy of the classic work of Lewis Carroll. As a work all its own, it is a sheer delight. It borrows liberally from the writer's original imagery while updating its Victorian verse and visuals. It's a pop art masterpiece of overwhelming primary colors and precision animation (years before the computer would make the magic of multiple exposure a cake walk). The voice acting is inventive, and every character is brought to life. Some of the shots and animated sequences are absolutely stunning. Now, you may be asking yourself how something that has just been criticized as being a flawed feature of Lewis Carroll's work can also be so entertaining and enjoyable. That answer is simple: Disney's version, like so many other "takes" on classic literature is a creature all its own and can be appreciated wholly on that level. After all, other adaptations like The Little Mermaid, Beauty and the Beast, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty have all fudged with the fairy tale facts to get their points across and all are considered part of the sacred House of Mouse canon. Some have even enhanced the fables to create new and improved interpretations of the literary myth being borrowed from. Perhaps the reason the changes stick out so clearly in Alice is because Carroll's work is so much a part of the popular culture. The words, the images, and the influence are that pervasive. But it is simple to dismiss the direct contradictions in those old English puzzle poems, Carroll's often too clever craft and obsessive attention to detail simply let Disney's old fashioned, achingly beautiful hand drawn animation whisk you away. Alice in Wonderland is an example of Walt Disney's cartoon vision, a visual feast with a few dismissible flaws in its presentation.
Disney's latest release of this film (a rather bare bones DVD, with a trailer, a 1951 television short, and some sing-alongs, came out in 2000) is presented in what the company calls a Masterpiece Edition. And when it comes to the transfer and the sound, truer words have never been spoken. Alice in Wonderland looks flat-out fantastic, shimmering with a pristine polish that amazes the mind. While the original DVD cleaned up and clarified the print from its rather sorry VHS counterpart, the work the studio has done in trying to bring the best possible 1.33:1 original aspect ratio image to this digital disc set is startling. Subtle color schemes are now breathtaking. The saturation of colors is exceptional. Even with just the smallest hint of age, the transfer looks brand new, and if it weren't for the traditional Disney drawing style that is so recognizable from the studio's early work, one could swear that the movie was made recently. Indeed, this is one of the best versions of a Disney film on DVD ever. And it doesn't stop there. The audio is also unbelievable. Many people take issue with older cinema because the sonic rendering can be tinny, distorted, and lacking warmth. None of that applies to Alice. The newly remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround soundtrack is excellent, providing atmosphere and ambiance where once there was white noise. And it really does try to make use of all the channels. Purists will be happy to see the original mono track here as well, but everyone should check out the new version first.
Similar to the movie itself, there are pros and cons to the plethora of extras that Disney places on this Masterpiece collection. If you are under the age of, say, eight, you'll think this is your very own unbirthday present. Disney really aims this release at the wee ones, realizing that Mom and Pop will most likely buy this disc as another aid in the never-ending battle of pre-adolescent ennui. Disc One alone features an interactive tea party that is full of activities, games, jokes, and surprises. Strangely, it is all done in live action (Disney Channel used to have a kids' show based on Alice back before it became the station that teen pop built), and the attempts to mimic the movie's characterizations are just plain bizarre. Whoever is attempting to channel Ed Wynne as the Mad Hatter is so over the top, he should be a roof. Still, this is guaranteed to keep your kids content, but if they find their attention spans shrinking further, fire up some classic Mickey comic capering with the Alice-inspired short from 1943, Thru the Mirror. It's unique, inventive, and a complete joy. There is also a trivia game, which offers nothing much in the way of reward if you answer all the questions correctly, and a group of those trademarked Mouse House sing-alongs, guaranteed to have the kiddies rattling off "The Unbirthday Song" for the next few months.
But there are still ample goodies for the adults, most of which hearken back to the nostalgic days of early television and silent cinema (with the inclusion of one of Disney's first shorts, the adventures of his own Alice in Alice's Wonderland) as well as some intriguing bits of production development. Perhaps you have heard that the DVD of Alice in Wonderland contains new songs and production numbers, cut tunes that were recently uncovered and offered here for the first time. Well, this is partly true. A bunch of demos are available on Disc Two, and they do offer a chance to hear some rejected music from the movie (and after hearing them once, you'll know why most of them were excised). But Disc One does contain the "newly discovered" song from the movie, the Cheshire Cat's ode to peculiarity, "I'm Odd." The introduction has us all set up to see a kind of Disney Holy Grail -- an edited sequence, ala The Wizard of Oz's "Jitterbug" -- from their Alice. Alas, this is not the case. It is a "recreation," with a new voice imitating Sterling Holloway's purr-fect delivery (very well, actually) and a montage of clips from the film to form a kind of music video. While the rhymes stretch artistic credibility (sleeps in the sod cause he's odd???), it is still a fun and informative feature.
And anyone who thought Disney's media frenzy mass marketing international conglomeration overkill was a product of current corporate idealism will be simply stunned at the three advertisement-like offerings housed among the discs' extras. First up is An Hour in Wonderland, a Christmas special fashioned by the studio to announce and tease the upcoming release of Alice in Wonderland. Featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy (with Mortimer Snerd along to cast aspersions on the stupid), this is one curious, crass creation. Basically a highlight real of other Disney products (Snow White, animated shorts), it does feature the Mad Tea Party scene from the film as part of the finale. While very dull (and Bergen is quite possibly the worst ventriloquist on the planet -- no wonder he succeeded on the radio), it does contain one amazing gem that makes the whole thing worth wading through. Child star Bobby Driscoll asks Walt if his "magic mirror" (Hans Conried in some odd makeup) can show him a scene from Song of the South and instantly, Uncle Remus is singing "Zip A Dee Doo Dah" and the notorious and dazzling combination of live action, animation, and incredible political incorrectness fills the screen. For 10 minutes we get to see an entire sequence from the film, beginning with the Oscar-winning tune and concluding on a timeless tale of Br'er Rabbit, Br'er Bear, and Br'er Fox, each Amos-and-Andy-ing up the place. South is perhaps one of the most debated films in the Disney canon, and one view of this scene instantly answers a lot of questions as to why. This may be the one and only time you see a sequence from Song of the South on an official US DVD release, so enjoy it.
The other two puff pieces are even stranger. Opera singer James Melton takes a tour of the Disney studios and praises Alice in the newsreel-like Operation: Wonderland. And Fred Waring and his band of...well, based on this kinescope clip, his band of complete idiots, devote a half hour to Disney's film and even have Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) and the Cheshire Cat (Sterling Holloway) along for promotional support. This meandering 30 minutes is very tedious (guess they'd watch anything back in 1951) and instantly begins to grate on the nerves. Holloway sings a minor musical number from the film (the Jabberwocky-poem-inspired "Twas Brillig") at least 15 times, and the rest of the main songs are given less-than-stellar readings. As an ancient artifact of early television, it's a pip. As a means of promoting Alice in Wonderland, Disney himself must have been less than pleased. The rest of the bonus material consists of trailers, TV introductions by Walt himself, art galleries (with some wonderfully disturbing renderings for the film), and a section of deleted material. This segment includes the aforementioned demos, the deleted storyboard concepts for the opening in the film, and an intriguing bit of Disney trivia. Apparently, the theme song from Peter Pan (made after Alice), entitled "The Second Star to the Right," was supposed to be in Alice (as an introduction to the character with different words and sentiments of course). The explanation of what happened is intriguing and makes for some nice behind-the-scenes fascination. Of course, as this is a family film (and DVD) the gossip is kept above board. But one senses that the musical history of Alice with its numerous song deletions and changes was far more jaded and juicy than what we get here.
One of the most bogus criticisms in the canon of critical fodder is the "not like the book" bash. The reason is simple: it's too easy. It's like saying that chicken can't match steak because fried fowl doesn't taste like a sirloin. You just can't compare novels to oranges, or maybe it's apples to films. So to harp on Disney's version of Lewis Carroll's ode to an underage girl is really unfair. Sure, Walt's world tends to meander between the inspired (The Tweedles) and the mundane (the visual pun passivity of the walk through an odd animal forest) and some of the character voices overpower the narrative (Ed Wynne and Jerry Collona should be ashamed). But this is a fun, frightfully imaginative and anarchic interpretation of the literary classic that merits its own artistic considerations. Any honest comparison is just pointless. The film should be taken for what it is, and what it is exemplifies the magic to be found in hand-drawn animation. It can take us to worlds we cannot conjure in our own minds. It can make flat drawings come to life in a special and profound way. It can raise a smile or bring a tear. And Alice in Wonderland is one of Disney's most accomplished visual feasts. It's as mad as its own hatter and twice as twisted. So leave the bookish nitpicking for something a little less inspired and let Alice in Wonderland be what it is: a garish and glorious version of a beloved fairy tale.
Walt Disney's beautiful, occasionally befuddling Alice in Wonderland should be considered a basic beginner's primer. As a work all its own, it is a vibrant, exciting cascade of colors and cheerful cacophony. It finds ways to match Carroll's crazy considerations with mainstream moviemaking to occasionally hit on pure gold. And there are times when the story stops dead in its tracks for some cinematic stalling tactics. It does combine both volumes of the influential fables and, by doing so, undermines most of what Carroll was trying to accomplish. But what it wants to do, which is purely and easily entertain its audience, it does magnificently. Don't let the literary bullies (and this critic just may be one) dissuade you from visiting this fine film and exceptional DVD. While the bonus material may be a bit schizophrenic and the ancient advertising artifacts a fun but conservative slice of commercialism, the transfer is unbelievable. Combine that with the trademarked Disney imagination and attention to detail, a memorable score, and a few moments of sheer brilliance and you've got something very special. Frankly, if there has to be a representative version of Alice and Looking Glass for all posterity, you could do a lot worse than this 1951 classic. Disney may have barely let some of Lewis' lunatic creativity rub off on his movie, but when it does, it makes the most of it. Walt Disney's animated Alice in Wonderland may not be completely timeless, but it is definitely a treat.
Alice in Wonderland is found not guilty, by a preponderance of the evidence, and is free to go. Disney is also acquitted of all charges for the magnificent transfer and audio offering they give to the film. The DVD extras are good, but could be less "kid's party" oriented.
Review content copyright © 2004 Bill Gibron; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (Spanish)
* Dolby Digital 1.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 1951
MPAA Rating: Rated G
* Virtual Wonderland Party Activities, Including Riddles, Silly Song and Dance, Teapot Orchestra, Mad Hatter Says, and Other Games and Stories
* "Thru the Mirror" Animated Short with Mickey Mouse
* "I'm Odd" Never Before Heard Song
* 2 Sing-Along Songs
* Set-Top Game
* "One Hour in Wonderland" Documentary (60 mins.)
* "An Alice Comedy: Alice's Wonderland" Featurette (8 mins.)
* "Operation Wonderland" Featurette (11 mins.)
* Excerpt from "The Fred Warring Show" (30 mins.)
* Deleted Material Featurettes: "From Wonderland to Never Land"
* Song Demos
* Deleted Storyboard Concept: "Alice Daydreams in the Park"
* Original Walt Disney TV Introductions and Trailers
* Art Galleries
* Plus a Wonderland Match Card Game Set