Disney’s roll-out of classic titles on Blu-ray continues with the recent release of 1951’s Alice in Wonderland in a Blu-ray/DVD combo pack. While the high-definition release adds little new bonus content, the slate of extras ported over from previous DVD releases means that Alice still features far more to see than most new Disney home video releases.
Alice in Wonderland isn’t exactly one of Disney’s most beloved films, but it’s one that the company almost had to make. Walt Disney kicked off his Hollywood career based on the success of his Alice Comedies beginning with Alice’s Wonderland in 1923. An combination live-action/animated adaptation of Alice was meant to be the studio’s first feature-length release in the mid-1930s, and work on an animated Alice continued after the success of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs in 1937. World War II intervened, but Alice went right back on the front burner after production ramped up again in the 1950s.
The problem was that as evocative as Carroll’s tale was, it was a highly episodic story that depended heavily on wordplay as well as contemporary references to Victorian England. The Disney story department notoriously had a hard time stitching together the events from the book into a workable film, and it seems that in the end they didn’t quite make it. The problem, for me, is not that the story is episodic – after all, many films are. The issue is that there is no real arc for Alice herself, and while Kathryn Beaumont did charming vocal work the character seems at times like a cipher to whom things just happen at random. There’s a moment, towards, the end, when she breaks down in Tulgey Wood and it’s wonderfully humanizing, but it would be more effective had she not spent the previous 45 minutes blithely wandering at random through increasingly frantic scenes and reacting with vague impatience at a series of bizarre and somewhat terrifying characters.
Some of this could be due to the way the film was developed, with different directors tacking the separate chunks of the story. In the commentary, it’s pointed out how this method led to Alice herself changing appearance during the film, but it also seems to have heavily affected the tone as well.
This brings me to another issue I have with this film: there’s way too much YELLING. Too many scenes in the first half of the film involve characters talking past each other, and while that’s part of the “madcap” nature of Wonderland, it just goes on way too long. Too many of these antics seem based on Carroll’s wordplay mixed heavily with old vaudeville routines – the film’s voice cast consists heavily of old-time radio and stage comedians – and at some point you want Alice to just end the nonsense by flicking the White Rabbit and Dodo into the next county.
What’s ironic, though, is that while this was never one of Walt’s most popular or beloved films, its characters and scenarios have become iconic and remain very prominent today in the Disney parks. A large part of this is due in no small part to Mary Blair and her legendary development work for the film; the color styling and backgrounds are critical to the film’s appeal, and explain why its look translates so well to theme park attractions.
While the technical aspects of the animation aren’t as polished as in the films of the golden age, there’s loads of great character work courtesy of a roster of Walt’s greatest animators. Then there’s the astounding final act of the film, when the Queen of Hearts and her cards show up and the animators really go for broke with some incredible sequences involving hundreds of hand-drawn cards. This is truly the showpiece of the entire film, with a liveliness reminiscent of Dumbo’s Pink Elephants number. If the earlier segments of the film flowed as nicely as the scenes in the Tulgey Wood and the Queen’s castle, perhaps the entire film would be more fondly remembered.
Released February 1, 2011 – Rated G – 75 minutes
Blu-ray Combo Pack (1 Blu-ray disc + 1 DVD disc) – $39.99
While the recent trend of issuing Blu-ray and DVD combo packs has reduced the amount of extra content in certain releases (the recent Fantasia disappointment, for instance), in this case the relatively short feature film fits comfortably on a single Blu-ray with a healthy slate of bonus material. This particular release is really of use only to high-definition viewers, as the vast majority of this material was released on a 2-disc DVD release just last year.
Video & Audio
One concern with viewing any modern “cleaned-up” release of a classic film is the fidelity of the color grading with regards to the original. Disney has gotten into the habit of really cranking up the saturation of films; sometimes this is particularly artificial-looking, but with Alice being such a colorful film it’s not surprising to have bright hues popping off the screen. The Blu-ray is definitely bright, clear and saturated, but out of respect to Mary Blair and so many others I wonder how it compares to the original 1951 prints. Perhaps some Alice expert will chime in?
The film is presented here in its original 1.33:1 aspect ratio, although it also has the “Disney View” option that adds newly-created artwork to the unused areas on the left and the right of the screen. Audio tracks come in both a new Dolby Digital 5.1 mix as well as the film’s original theatrical mix. The surround mix is nice and clear; it’s well restored without going nuts with artificial surround effects.
This disc is unusual in that its has few new features of note but ports over many very entertaining extras from the many previous DVD releases. The centerpiece of the new extras is something called Through the Keyhole: A Companion’s Guide to Wonderland, which is a sort of a combination of a making-of feature and commentary track. It runs during the film, occasionally moving the film image around the screen to make room for talking-head interviews, concept art, and behind-the-scenes footage. Introduced by Kathryn Beaumont, voice of Alice, the feature includes commentary by such worthies as Brian Sibley, Charles Solomon, Paula Sigman, Carroll expert and professor Morton Cohen, Imagineer Daniel Singer, animator Will Finn, and animation conservator Ron Barbagallo. It’s an interesting idea, and must have been a bear to produce, but while it sometimes works very well I overall would have preferred a traditional documentary feature.
This clip is one of the instances in which the commentary synchs well with the action on-screen, but there are other times, especially when the historians are talking about events outside the narrative of the film, when having the film itself running in-frame is an annoying distraction. It’s like you’re trying to watch an interesting documentary in the middle of a train station, and you wish you could just cut off the film itself and hear the interviewees speak about Carroll and Disney. It’s an interesting idea, and at times it works really well, but at other times just feels like it’s about to give you attention deficit disorder.
Also introduced by Beaumont are re-discovered pencil tests and reference footage, but some of the best bonus material on this disc consists of TV programs from the film’s 1951 release. There’s Operation Wonderland, a promotional short with great footage of Walt riding his train around the Burbank studio lot, and then there’s One Hour in Wonderland, a fantastic special that aired on Christmas Day, 1950. This was Walt’s first foray into television, and it’s a wonderful time capsule. The conceit is that Walt is throwing a part of some sort for Beaumont at the Disney studio, and for some reason invites ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his puppet friends Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd. It’s a cornucopia of delights for people who enjoy watching puppets hit on teen-aged girls.
Anyway, it’s quite a party – Bobby Driscoll is there, and eventually they wheel out Snow White’s magic mirror who shows clips from Disney’s past. Remember that this was 1950, so seeing this material on television was an unheard-of delight. We see clips from Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Clock Cleaners (with Mickey, Donald and Goofy), Bone Trouble (a Pluto short) and – gasp! – a nice long clip from Song of the South (at Bobby Driscoll’s request; he really, really admires Uncle Remus). Thankfully, despite the fact that the television special itself was broadcast in black and white, the included clips and shorts in this version are presented in color.
This special really is a hoot – you can tell that Walt is having a ball, hamming it up. And yes, there are cameos by his daughters Diane and Sharon as themselves! So the next time you see Diane Disney Miller, you can ask her about doing a Coke commercial in 1950.
One last extra I’ll mention is another television special from 1951; this time, it’s an episode of The Fred Waring Show featuring Beaumont and Sterling Holloway (the Cheshire Cat) performing a number of surreal skits and numbers from the film with Waring and his Pennsylvanians. It’s pure, glorious cheese and Mary Blair even designed the sets!
Unfortunately, many of the extras that were ported over from the previous DVD are included in standard resolution and were not remastered for high definition. The extras are all kind of dumped onto the Blu-ray in various folders, and while it isn’t necessarily difficult to find anything, it isn’t exactly pretty.
New on this Blu-ray:
- Through the Keyhole: A Companion’s Guide to Wonderland – A special viewing mode that combines aspects of a documentary feature and commentary track.
- Walt Disney Color TV Introduction (1959) – Walt’s introduction to the presentation of Alice in Wonderland on his Disneyland anthology show.
- Reference Footage: Alice and the Doorknob – Kathryn Beaumont introduces and gives an optional commentary to this clip of reference footage from the film’s production.
- Pencil Test: Alice Shrinks – Beaumont introduces this brief pencil test.
- Painting the Roses Red Game – The obligatory set-top game.
Features from the previous DVD release:
- Reflections on Alice – A 13-minute featurette with a number of Disney historians and artists discussing the production of the film.
- Operation Wonderland – A 1951 featurette with singer James Melton providing a fictionalized tour of the Disney studios hosted by Walt (remastered in high definition).
- One Hour in Wonderland – The 1950 Christmas television special.
- The Fred Waring Show (Excerpt) – Clips from the 1951 television show featuring Kathryn Beaumont and Sterling Holloway.
- “I’m Odd“ – Beaumont introduces this song, one of many numbers written for the film and discarded. Jim Cummings provides the voice of the Cheshire Cat for the reconstructed number.
- Pig and Pepper – A deleted scene.
- From Wonderland to Neverland: The Evolution of a Song – The story of how a song intended for Alice in Wonderland became The Second Star to the Right in Peter Pan.
- Deleted Storyboard Concept: Alice Daydreams in the Park
- Original Song Demos: Beware The Jabberwock, Everything Has A Useness, So They Say, Beautiful Soup, Dream Caravan, If You’ll Believe In Me
- Walt Disney TV Introduction – Walt showed Alice several times on his anthology show, since he saw it as less valuable for re-release. Included are Walt’s introductions from 1954 and 1964.
- Original Theatrical Trailers – 1951 & 1974
- Thru the Mirror – The famous 1936 animated short takes Mickey on a wacky trip through the looking glass (remastered in high definition).
- Alice’s Wonderland – A truncated version of Walt’s original 1923 short.
- Art Gallery
Alice in Wonderland isn’t one of my favorite Disney films, but I must say that this presentation, along with all the vintage DVD extras, is definitely worth a look if you don’t own one of the previous releases. The highlight, for me, was all the old Walt-era television material; when combined with the information that the esteemed Disney historians contribute to the film’s commentary, it makes a pretty engrossing package overall. The film itself has moments that continue to amaze, and it remains a wonderful example of Mary Blair’s incredible design sense.