Alice in Wonderland 60th Anniversary Edition (US - BD)
Gabe is late, he's late, for a very important date with this Disney classic.
Last March I reviewed a made for Syfy channel miniseries entitled Alice, which followed the continued adventures of Lewis Carroll’s most famous heroine in a more adult version of ‘Wonderland’. While struggling to think of something intelligent to say about the less than great collection, I realized that Carroll’s books, ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’ and ‘Through the Looking Glass’, are among the most overly adapted tales in cinematic history (off the top of my head I thought of The Matrix, Labyrinth, Pan’s Labyrinth, The Never Ending Story, Running Scared, Spirited Away, Che? ( What?), Mirror Mask and Hellraiser). Further thought, and this new Blu-ray release, have led me to the possibility that the Disney animated adaptation isn’t only the penultimate version of the stories, but possibly more responsible for the consistent remaking than the original books. There were at least seven film adaptations before Disney’s 1951 release, but none of them had the same massive influence, and the vast majority of people alive today likely picture the Disney version when recalling the story.
Alice in Wonderland is certainly one of my favourite Disney animated features, probably because it was among the most commonly watched in my household when I was growing up. Like many Disney classics it doesn’t feature a standard three act plot, and is kind of nightmarish, or at the very least works on dream logic. However, Alice in Wonderland isn’t terrifying like Pinocchio, mostly because the protagonist takes the nightmare so well. Alice isn’t really all that shocked by the insanity that surrounds her, and replies rather wryly to the characters around her, whether she intends to or not (‘but I don’t want to go among mad people’). I mean, the girl falls into a bottomless pit, and instead of screaming in terror she finds the time to wish her cat a polite ‘good-bye’. The character’s quality is curious, since Alice is so passive, but she may be the strongest passive female in Disney’s history, and Kathryn Beaumont’s performance is enduringly impressive, especially considering her age and relative inexperience at the time of filming.
The animation is close to flawless, especially given the limitations of the era. Alice in Wonderland stands apart from many of the studio’s other productions thanks to its use of contrasting illustrative styles, all of which manage to blend into a coherent and potent whole. The wilder character animation isn’t surprising, though this might mark the beginning of the studio’s best work in the area, as it lead into the ‘60s, and films like 101 Dalmatians and The Jungle Book (though the animators would experiment with more realistic widescreen images first through Sleeping Beauty and Lady and the Tramp). More exceptional are the facts that the creature animation rivals Fantasia and Bambi, the stylized and rhythmic dance numbers rival Dumbo’s ‘Pink Elephant’ sequence, and the perspective utilized with Alice’s scale changes should be studied by future animators for generations. Other brilliant touches include humorous crash zooms, and sudden cuts to black and white during the tea party scene. Then there is the music. Alice in Wonderland’s songs may not be as memorable as some of the more wildly popular modern Disney classics like Beauty and the Beast or The Lion King, but they’re still beautifully crafted. Personal favourites include the ‘I’m Late’ refrain, ‘The Unbirthday Song’ and ‘Painting the Roses Red’.
If it wasn’t for the practically perfect Sleeping Beauty release this might have been Disney’s finest Blu-ray achievement to date (I know I’ve said that before, but this time I mean it). The minor dirt and grain that usually comes with these older catalogue releases is more or less absent from this transfer. The cleanliness is almost grotesque. It looks like a brand new film. The included DVD edition features a similarly clean transfer, but falls apart quite a bit with compression noise along the edges, especially in the higher contrast warm colours. Oh, and speaking of colours, this Blu-ray’s colours are simply divine. The whole film practically leaps off the screen and strangles the audience’s eyes with rich blues, lush greens, and, of course, impossibly vibrant reds. The colours make the DVD edition look dull and washed out, and the contrast levels are equally incomparable. The Blu-ray’s detail levels are noticeably sharper as well, including perfectly separated elements, and a better differentiation of cell and painted background elements.
Disney’s original 5.1 remix has itself been remixed into an uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio track. Like most of the Disney mono and stereo remixes this one is simple, holding most of the performance and major effects in the center channel while the music bleeds nicely into the stereo and surround channels on occasion. There aren’t many directional effects, or even rear channel effects, but the added LFE adds a nice bass bump, and the rear channel music is well placed without being distracting. Some of the sound effects are a little over-produced, and a little too bassy, but for the most part this is a tempered track that is true to its source material.
This disc’s extras begin under the ‘Backstage Disney’ banner. ‘Through the Keyhole: A Companion’s Guide to Wonderland’ is an information packed viewing option that includes interviews with experts and animators, pertinent photos, and original production art. Discussion covers both the film’s production, and the history of the original books and Lewis Carroll himself. I personally learned a lot about both subjects, though there’s so much information that comes at the viewer so fast it’s sometimes a little difficult to truly appreciate it. Technically this would’ve worked just as well as a shorter documentary, or a simpler commentary track, but it’s nice to see Disney embracing the digital format (this is a separate film track, not an in-film or PiP options, so it could’ve worked on standard DVD as well, given a second disc). The section also includes live action reference footage of Kathryn Beaumont with optional actress commentary (1:30, HD), and a pencil test of Alice shrinking (1:00, HD).
Under the ‘Family Play’ banner is footage from Disney’s introduction to the colour television debut of the film (1:20, HD), and the ‘Painting the Roses Red’ game. The ‘Classic DVD Bonus Features’ are a little more substantial, starting with ‘Reflections on Alice’ (13:30, SD), a behind the scenes featurette that isn’t really needed following the new ‘Through the Keyhole’ option. ‘Operation Wonderland’ (11:00, HD) is a charming, vintage behind the scenes featurette made for ‘50s television. This is followed by a recreation of a rediscovered Cheshire Cat sung song called ‘I’m Odd’ (10:00, SD), ‘Thru the Mirror’ (8:50, HD), a Wonderland inspired Mickey Mouse short, ‘One Hour in Wonderland’ (59:30, SD), a Coca Cola sponsored television special featuring Alice and other Disney characters (including characters from the as yet unreleased Song of the South), ‘An Alice Comedy: Alice’s Wonderland’ (8:10, SD), one of Disney’s original animation/live action shorts, two trailers, two of Disney’s TV introductions, and excerpt from the Fred Waring Show featuring Disney (31:00, SD), a narrated deleted scene (3:10, SD), ‘From Wonderland to Neverland’ (SD), the story of a song written for Alice in Wonderland that ended up in Peter Pan (6:50, SD), a deleted storyboard concept (2:00, SD), six song demos and an interactive HD art gallery. Extras come to an end with a series of Disney sneak peek trailers.
It’s difficult to discuss any Alice in Wonderland adaptation without discussing the drug culture subtext of edible mushrooms, hookah smoking caterpillars, and door mice sleeping in piles of ‘sugar’. Disney actually embraced the culture when they re-released the film in the early ‘70s, promising a psychedelic experience. Personally I prefer to deal with the story, and especially this animated version, as a rather innocent tryst with the imagination. There’s plenty of adult readings of the film, including the dark comedy, and heady politics behind the story of ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’, and the Queen of Hearts’ obsession with decapitation. I just feel the drug connotations are too obvious as far as subtext goes. On the subject of this new Blu-ray release, Disney has really outdone themselves. The picture quality is positively stunning, the uncompressed 5.1 soundtrack is effective, and the extra features cover just about every aspect of the film’s creation and release. This is the studio’s most exciting reissue since Snow White.
*Note: The images on this page are from the DVD release, and are not representative of the Blu-ray's image quality.
Review by Gabriel Powers
All ages admitted
Release Date: 1st January 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French and Spanish
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Through the Key Hole: A Companion's Guide to Wonderland, Painting the Roses Red Game, Walt Disney Colour TV Intro, Reference Footage, Pencil Tests, Reflections on Alice, Operation Wonderland, Deleted Scenes and Storyboards, Trailers
Easter Egg: No
Director: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson and Hamilton Luske
Cast: Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn,Richard Haydn, Sterling Holloway
Length: 75 minutes
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