ALICE IN WONDERLAND - Blu-ray review

Disney's animated "Alice in Wonderland" has never looked better, and the PIP track on this Blu-ray is one of the best I've seen.

James Plath's picture

I'm a no-nonsense person and I hate dream sequences in films and TV shows, which means, of course, that "Alice in Wonderland" isn't among my favorite animated Disney features.

Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland is a nonsensical narrative about a bored English girl who follows a white rabbit into a fantasy world, and the entire experience can be read as a dream sequence. Carroll's companion novel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871), is a little more metaphysical insomuch as it explores the idea of the existence of alternate worlds and poses questions which, like a Wallace Stevens or Marianne Moore poem, sound simple and logical enough but are really too complex to be answered . . . or make sense.

Disney's 1951 animated feature drew from both novels, eliminating some of the crazy characters and adding at least one--a talking doorknob. In posters and trailers it was billed as an "all-cartoon Musical Wonderfilm," and the loosely episodic structure must have appealed to Disney and his animators because it gave them the chance to link together Silly Symphony-style songs and sequences.

Disney marketed the film with his usual foresight, creating a one-hour TV special that previewed clips of the upcoming film and introduced Kathryn Beaumont as the voice of Alice. But despite his best efforts, the film was panned in the U.K. and drew disappointing audiences in the U.S. Lewis Carroll fans were put off by what they considered an Americanized version of their beloved classic, and there's no explanation for why American families didn't go for it. But a funny thing happened during the sixties. "Alice in Wonderland" found new life, embraced by a counterculture that listened to Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane sing, in "White Rabbit," how "one pill makes you larger and one pill makes you small, and the ones that mother gives you don't do anything at all, go ask Alice, when she's ten feet tall." Almost instantly "Alice in Wonderland" became a hit with college audiences, who became equally convinced that The Beatles were singing about Carroll's walrus in "I Am the Walrus," which came out the same year--1967.

How does it play today?

I was curious to see what my nine-year-old daughter would say, because as a youngster she had an Alice doll and matching Alice dress. Now that she's older and on the cusp of leaving the ranks of Disney Princesses, would it still hold her interest, or would she prefer the flashier, closer-to-Carroll live-action version that Tim Burton and Johnny Depp produced?

I frankly like the Burton-Depp version better and said in my review that it's a fun film with awesome visual design. For me, the 1951 animated version sags from the time that Alice cries her way through that tiny door until she steps on dry land again. It feels like an exercise in animation, the way that Disney's early entries did . . . but with better cause. My colleague, John J. Puccio, had an even more negative response, proclaiming "talented actors lend the film its greatest energy, and without them I might have fallen asleep rather than just feeling a bit listless."

As it turns out, my daughter liked the 1951 film much better than either of us. In fact, she loved the animation, the gentle, rounded style of drawing, loved the bright colors, and loved sequences like the singing flowers.

I can appreciate the animation artistry and accomplishments of "Alice in Wonderland," but I'm never fully engaged. There's not enough of a narrative hook to hold the scenes together, which, as John described, seem like "an endless series of unrelated, discombobulated set pieces, far more disconnected than anything in Carroll's books." I agree with John that the opening section, the chase after the White Rabbit, the caterpillar and Cheshire cat sequences, the tea party, and Alice's painting the roses red and subsequent whacked-out croquet match with the Queen of Hearts are the strong segments. In between we have to suffer through the vaudeville-style Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee routine, a paddling-through-tears and water-drenched celebration of animals, and a Walrus story-within-a-story that tonally and thematically has nothing to do with the main story and even has a different look to it, in terms of the animation and drawing.

John gave it a 6 out of 10 which I think is harsh. There's enough that holds up in this rendition to merit a 7, I believe, and as family fare it still holds appeal. As gentle a story as this is, that's saying something.

You'd expect Disney to do a good job with this title, especially since it comes to Blu-ray for the first time, and Disney delivers. The video quality is superb. You'd hardly know this is the 60th Anniversary Edition, colors are so pop-out bold and bright and edge delineation is so precise. There's a really nice sense of 3-dimensionality too, with only the Walrus sequence seeming a little soft and flat, by comparison. The AVC/MPEG-4 transfer isn't marred by compression artifacts or too much digital tampering, as there's still a very slight layer of filmic grain to add texture. "Alice" is presented in 1.33:1 aspect ratio, as it appeared in theaters, and once more Disney provides the option of watching with "DisneyView" enhanced viewing experience--which is a set of painted borders that replace the blank vertical bars on either side of the image. As with other recent titles, however, the picture changes color and tone so quickly that the borders often clash with the image onscreen. At some point they synch up, but the rest of the time I found them distracting. I'd prefer nothingness to an incompatible "somethingness."

The audio remix (DTS-HD MA 5.1 in English) redistributes the sound so that more of it comes through the rear effects speakers, especially during musical numbers. The subwoofer even kicks in at times--though not often. Compared to contemporary releases, "Alice" isn't a dynamic soundtrack and the sound field isn't terribly expansive feeling. But there's great clarity and precision, and the remix with the new 5.1 soundtrack is a big improvement over what the DVD had to offer. Additional options are French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 Disney Enhanced Home Theater Mix, along with the Original theatrical soundtrack so you can hear the difference . . . or watch that way, if you're an audio purist. Subtitles are in English SDH, French, and Spanish.

In addition to standard-def content carried over from the DVDs, "Alice" features a half-dozen small features in HD along with an HD art gallery and a game for kids who've always hankered to paint the Queen's roses red. Most of the HD stuff is very brief. Three TV intros get the HD treatment (4 min.), and included is some live-action reference material on the doorknob in HD (2 min.) and a pencil test of Alice shrinking (1 min.). The longest bonus feature in HD is "Operation Wonderland," a behind-the-scenes look inside the animator's studio (11 min.), and the one families may appreciate the most is the remastered 1936 Mickey Mouse cartoon "Through the Mirror" (9 min.). But the real HD gem is a feature-length HD picture-in-picture track that pops up all sorts of rare and, yes, wonderful stills, archival footage, drawings, and factoids about the film, Disney, and Carroll. Watching the film in this mode really makes you appreciate it more.

As for the standard def bonus content, there's a featurette on "Reflections on Alice" (13 min.) that has Disney animators looking back; deleted scenes and songs (21 min.); a Wonderland excerpt from "The Fred Waring Show" (31 min.); the Cheshire Cat song that was added to the previous release; a 1923 silent film (8 min.) about Alice's visit to a cartoon studio; original trailers; a "Virtual Wonderland Party" game that's so-so; and the plum, "One Hour in Wonderland" (59 min.), the 1950 show that introduced the movie to audiences.

And, of course, there's the DVD version of the film.

Bottom Line:
Disney's animated "Alice in Wonderland" has never looked better, and the PIP track on this Blu-ray is one of the best I've seen. Fans out to be delighted with this high-def release.


Film Value