Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) and “Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There” (1871) have been brought to the screen many times, but, oddly enough, none of the multitude of versions has been entirely satisfactory. You’d think the crazy, satiric, colorful, antic characters and places of Carroll’s imaginative fiction would be perfect subjects for artists, performers, screenwriters, costume designers, and set decorators; but apparently capturing the look of Carroll isn’t exactly the same thing as capturing the tone and feel of Carroll. Nevertheless, Disney’s 1951 animated adaptation is as good as anything else, and this new, two-disc “Masterpiece Edition” is certainly the best transfer of the cartoon we’ve had yet.
The history of Disney’s version has seen its ups and downs, as audience reaction to it over the years has varied. When the movie was released it did not fare too well with the press or the public. The changes that were made to the original stories, the updated art work, the Americanizations, and the haphazard pacing all contributed to the film’s poor initial reception. Yet, as time passed the movie picked up a following, especially during the psychedelic era of the late sixties and early seventies, and today the film has become a staple of the Disney children’s catalogue.
Maybe the problem I see with this adaptation is that Carroll never meant his tales to be taken simply as children’s stories. The Reverend Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, Carroll’s real name, was a mathematics professor as well as an author, and he meant for his fantasies to contain a good deal of biting satire on the persons and events of his day, the writer investing his stories with more figurative complications than appeared on the surface. But the Disney filmmakers chose to concentrate on the bizarre characters more than anything else and left out much of the symbolism, dialogue, and figurative language of Carroll’s novels. Their absence leaves more to the imagination than the animators are able to compensate for in their drawings.
The movie’s credits list over a dozen writers as having contributed to the screenplay, and when you consider the movie is only seventy-five minutes long, that may explain why there is so little sense of cohesion to the story. Alice says in the beginning the film that she’s looking for “a world of nonsense,” and that’s certainly what she gets, far more nonsensical than anything Carroll intended. The story combines elements both of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass,” plus an assortment of things made up especially for the movie, all scrambled together. The liberties the screenwriters took with Carroll’s books have never made purists happy. Imagine the outrage that would have resulted if Peter Jackson had made even more wholesale changes to “The Lord of the Rings” than he did. Fortunately, audiences for Disney films have always been used to the studio taking liberties with classic literary works, so objections weren’t quite so virulent. And today people are probably more familiar with the Disney movie than they are with the books, so it doesn’t make much difference.
The film seems an endless series of unrelated, discombobulated set pieces, far more disconnected than anything in Carroll’s books. Moreover, they have their plusses and minuses in terms of interest level. The episodes that hold up best continue to be the serene opening on the river, the chase after the White Rabbit, the bits with the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Tea Party, and the climactic garden party and trial with the Queen of Hearts. But the Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee encounter is humdrum, the White Rabbit’s house, the Dodo bird, and the garden of talking flowers segments are slow and dull, and for what appears to be a good ten minutes the Walrus and the Carpenter passage unaccountably takes us away from Alice and her story altogether!
Anyway, the issues start with Alice. Although the story is supposedly set in the mid-nineteenth century, Alice is drawn as a young woman of the 1950s and voiced by a smoothly urbane thirteen-year-old actress, Kathryn Beaumont. Trouble is, Carroll’s Alice was supposed to be “seven years and six months” old, as she announces to Humpty Dumpty in “Through the Looking Glass.” What’s more, the prototype for the fictional Alice, the real-life Alice Liddell, was only ten when Carroll presented her with the original story, “Alice’s Adventures Underground.” Nor does Disney’s Alice in any way resemble the original John Tenniel drawings of her that accompanied the first printing of the book. None of which makes a lot of difference, I suppose, considering, as I suggested before, that most people today would recognize Disney’s Alice before they’d recognize Carroll’s or Tenniel’s. So we’ve got a much older Alice in the Disney movie, twelve or thirteen, and, frankly, that has always taken away some of the mystery of the adventure for me. It’s no longer quite the child’s symbolic view of the world Carroll intended it to be. Oh, well….
Then there is the nature of the Disney animation. “Alice in Wonderland” appeared in the transition period between the time of the late thirties and forties when the studio was producing exquisitely detailed, softly romanticized background paintings and the fifties when starker, plainer, often more distorted, and more stylized animation was in favor. Not that the artwork isn’t beautiful, but if any story could have benefitted from the studio’s more old-fashioned style, it would have been “Alice.” Instead, the simplicity of the backgrounds lacks the exotic yet enigmatic atmosphere of Carroll’s tales.
Nor are the songs and music in “Alice” as extraordinary for older folks as they had been in Disney films that preceded it, like “Snow White,” “Pinocchio,” “Dumbo,” “Song of the South,” or “Cinderella.” Not that the songs in “Alice” are bad or boring; they’re just not the kind of things you leave the movie humming as in previous Disney films. Can you remember any of these tunes: “In a World of My Own,” “All in the Golden Afternoon,” “How D’Ye Do and Shake Hands,” or “Very Good Advice”? Maybe “The Unbirthday Party” and “Painting the Roses Red” stand out because they’re at least a little catchy, but most of the music is quite bland from an adult perspective.
On a happier note, the single most striking elements in Disney’s “Alice” are the voices. With the exception of Ms. Beaumont, who sounds a little too old and a little too sophisticated for her role as Alice, the other inhabitants of the narrative are wonderfully characterized. The White Rabbit is voiced by Bill Thompson; the Mad Hatter by Ed Wynn; the Caterpillar by Richard Haydn; the March Hare by Jerry Colonna; the Walrus, Carpenter, Dum, and Dee by J. Pat O’Malley; the Queen of Hearts by Verna Felton (so notable in “Cinderella” and “Sleeping Beauty”); and the Cheshire Cat best of all by Sterling Holloway. These talented actors lend the film its greatest energy, and without them I might have fallen asleep rather than just feeling a bit listless.
The THX mastered picture quality could hardly be bettered. Transferred at a relatively high bit rate, the colors are brilliant (except for Alice, whose skin and blond hair appear slightly too dark and muted), the definition is sharp, and any signs of age are nil. The image seems almost three-dimensional at times, and the screen is totally free of grain or other artifacts. For the most part, it’s as lovely a picture as we could hope for.
The movie’s original monaural sound is still available for those who wouldn’t be without it, but for the rest of us there is a remixed Dolby Digital 5.1 track available in all three language choices, English, French, or Spanish. This is not to say that the new remix is comparable to modern DD 5.1 tracks, but it is smooth and agreeable. The sound has been spread out across the front speakers to resemble a limited stereo, and a small amount of information is fed to the surround channels, mostly in terms of musical ambiance. There is almost no trace of background noise, but the frequency extremes and dynamic range are not too well extended. However, the result is quite pleasing to the ear, and the songs and dialogue come across naturally and realistically.
I’m not sure that a second disc was necessary, because most of the best stuff fits neatly onto disc one. Still, a special edition is hardly “special” these days unless it has at least two discs to its credit, to say nothing of a “Masterpiece Edition.” So, on disc one we find the standard screen presentation of the movie with its various soundtracks; English, French, and Spanish spoken languages; and English captions for the hearing impaired. Then, for bonuses, we get mainly things for kids: a “Virtual Wonderland Party” of interactive scenes, games, and puzzles; two sing-along songs, “The Unbirthday Song” and “All in the Golden Afternoon”; a newly discovered song from the Cheshire Cat, “I’m Odd”; an eight-minute Mickey Mouse animated short, “Thru the Mirror”; some Sneak Peeks at other Disney releases; a THX Optimizer set of audiovisual tests; and twenty-seven scene selections.
Disc two features a “One Hour in Wonderland” television special from 1950, Walt Disney’s first TV show, with Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy, Mortimer Snerd, and Alice. Then, there’s “An Alice Comedy: Alice’s Wonderland,” a 1923 Disney silent film; “Operation Wonderland,” a ten-minute behind-the-scenes segment from 1951; a thirty-minute “Fred Waring Show” excerpt, also from 1951, promoting “Alice”; some assorted deleted materials; Walt Disney’s TV introductions; and an art gallery. Bringing things to a close are several theatrical trailers, a four-page booklet insert, and, within the slim-line keep case, a “Wonderland” card game.
“Alice in Wonderland” was never one of my favorite Disney cartoons, and watching it again after an absence of many years merely confirmed my earlier suspicions. I’m sure it’s pleasant enough entertainment for younger children, but it may not suit the tastes of all adults. The songs aren’t clever or memorable enough, the pacing is too hit-and-miss, and the art work is never particularly imaginative, despite the subject matter. Nonetheless, “Alice” is not as bad as I remembered it, either, with the better parts still giving much pleasure; I just wouldn’t confuse it with things like “Snow White,” “Fantasia,” “Pinocchio,” “The Lion King,” or “Beauty and the Beast.”
All in all, “Alice in Wonderland” has its charms despite its variable output, even if its strongest appeal may be to kids or to folks who haven’t read the books. The Wife-O-Meter suggested a Film Value rating of 8/10 for children, 6/10 for adults. I concur.