A quick look at the IMDB will turn up dozens of versions of Alice in Wonderland you never heard of. Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel has captivated everyone from children to college professors to John Lennon, and persists as a great work of literature in a genre of its own. Most of the early film versions played as pageants of one kind or another, and relied for their amusement on fanciful costumes and special effects to communicate the wonder and sometimes-sinister mystery of Carroll's genuinely psychedelic worlds beyond the rabbit hole and through the looking glass. If The Wizard Of Oz created a far-off foreign land with a crazy-mirror exaggeration of American values, Carroll's Victorian flight of fancy imagined its distorted realm as right under our feet or in a parallel dimension -- here with us now, but something only a deranged person or a naíve adventurer could discover. Alice may be the first surreal hero, a stubbornly conventional tourist to a place that reflects absurd truths about civilized existence.
Any high school teacher will tell us that the strength of the Alice stories is in Lewis Carroll's use of the English language, which is truly fantastic. Carroll's brain-twisting sentences are best when read or heard in recital. Playful, clever, insinuating, his nonsense poetry invents words that seem wholly appropriate to the situations under discussion. The various monstrous characters are anthropomorphic people, recognizably human and often not that much of an exaggeration. They also strongly suggest the galloping snobbery, authoritarian abuse and bureaucratic mania of society. The riddle of the Walrus and the Carpenter is amusing but also extremely creepy, suggesting the two-faced treachery by which the adult world really functions.
When adapted to film, Alice has serious difficulties. Silent versions were like souvenir postcard versions of the story, often imitating the book's original illustrations. Paramount's 1933 adaptation plays like a high school production, and buries most of its all-star cast under papier-maché masks. Since the 1920s Walt Disney had wanted to film Alice as a live action / animation combo, a plan that stalled because of the Paramount film. But he revived the project after WW2 to follow Cinderella.
Disney's 1951 Alice in Wonderland has to rank as an also-ran among the showman's great animated films. The story just doesn't want to fit into his Happy Musical Fairyland Format. The movie is beautifully animated and several of the Carroll characters are superbly conceived. But the Disney Magic isn't all there. In some cases it's because he sticks to the original story and in others it's because he wanders far afield.
Carroll's Alice is an almost plotless series of episodes that resembles a dream or (as later suggested) a drug experience. Alice herself is a reader's surrogate who doesn't really develop as a character -- there's no journey of discovery, just a series of repetitive encounters. In older adaptations Alice is usually very dull. The problem comes in Disney's movie when Alice, after witnessing untold weird happenings and bizarre behaviors by strange monsters, is still politely surprised when yet another talking bug or phantom cat crosses her path. This is excellent dream logic, but Disney frames his story as a standard "princess" story. Blonde, blue-eyed babe Alice just keeps on doing her thing. We may marvel at the crazy happenings but we know none of them is essential: most any episode could be dropped or rearranged. The Disney formula unerringly leaves us moved by strong emotions: enchantment (Snow White) joy (Pinocchio) mother love (Dumbo), an awe of nature (Bambi). In Alice in Wonderland, there is no permanent effect, no emotional takeaway. The sleeper awakes and it's time for lunch. Funny stuff, dreams.
Disney has no choice but to alter a great deal of what happens down the rabbit hole. The Queen is almost perfect but clever animation and funny bits of character business soften the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat and other characters that in the original are ambiguous, not-very-friendly creatures. Any creature that can be made cute, is made CUTE! To Disney's credit, the star vocal talents that grace the characters are not billboarded as if performing in a Broadway musical, as was done in the '90s wave of animated Disney hits. Sterling Holloway, Richard Haydn and Bill Thompson fit their animated alter egos like a glove.
The Disney animators boost the characterizations with a heavy application of animated gags, especially at the Tea Party. Objects transform and teacups sliced in half still hold tea. The Caterpillar has difficulties keeping his segmented body from sliding off his perch, while the Cheshire Cat works 101 variations on the idea of invisibility. That much is expected, but then the artists take another step, inventing musical numbers and adding extraneous material, like a song by a group of flowers, that provide their own musical accompaniment. Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee of course do a music hall duet number. None of these songs is particularly memorable. All of them have new lyrics, of course, lyrics that depend on simple puns and figures of speech that of course cannot touch Carroll's multi-level satirical poetry.
We really know we're off the rails when Alice encounters fantastic inanimate objects turned into impossible little creatures -- bulb horns that imitate ducks, that sort of thing. It's like Porky in Wacky Land, except not funny, and more than a little pointless. And there's no appropriate Disney-lite way to adapt the story of the Walrus and the Carpenter, which in print comes off as a depressing horror tale. Disney represents the oysters as infant-like happy creatures sitting in bed-like seashells. The Walrus and the Carpenter have a sort of modified Laurel & Hardy act going, and the final surprise is that one of them has cheated the other out of his meal. But there had to be a lot of young children asking where the cute oysters went. The Carroll original suggests the horror of war, or greedy people consuming others and calling their crimes good will. This episode in the Disney version can't carry that meaning and thus has no point to make.
Alice drinks and eats unknown draughts and substances without a second thought. Disney seems oblivious to the Grace Slick possibilities in all this, as Alice uses the drugs solely as a practical means to open doors on her mission to find a white rabbit. Dumbo found out that getting roaring drunk was the direct way to learn how to fly, but poor Alice never learns to control her substance abuse habit beyond keeping the downers in one pocket and the uppers in another. Alice in Wonderland has some of Disney's most controlled and handsomely designed animation, but there's not much in its story for kids or adults to get a grip on -- if you love the characters, and enjoy seeing the nasty Red Queen blow her top, it's an acceptable phantasmagoric thrill ride. 1
Alice was touted as Disney's most expensive animated production to date, a statement that probably had something to do with Union contracts ... face it, nobody could afford to make something like Snow White while paying people earning overtime. Disney was quoted once as not really liking the Alice character all that much, as she just seemed a somewhat spoiled little girl. Obviously he didn't feel that way when he started the project. The Disney magic proved more than once that it could alter a "classic" and not do it damage, as seen in Cinderella, which more or less pushes the standard fairy tale story to one side in favor of concentrating on a really great story of mice vs. a fat cat. The result is so charming, we don't mind at all -- and Disney always thought that Prince Charming types were a total bore. Disney had an uphill struggle with Alice in Wonderland, and we should be pleased that the magic occasionally shines through.
Disney's Blu-ray + DVD of Alice in Wonderland has presumably been chosen for this deluxe release because of the great success of the Tim Burton film. Disney hasn't skimped on the packaging or extras. The transfer is fall-down gorgeous, much sharper than earlier video editions, with colors that don't bleed and blacks that show hints of shadows within shadows. The Blu-ray and DVD extras contain a number of games for kids, and a long list of featurettes and curious add-ons to complement the feature. Besides the expected making-of shows (old and newer) the Blu-ray features Walt Disney's Christmas-themed color TV introduction from 1959, pencil tests and reference footage shot to help the animators. The second DVD disc contains its own feature encoding, plus an older featurette and a deleted scene called Pig and a Prayer.
Disney lists the wonderful Bambi as its next title up; either I'm confused or Dumbo got pushed back a bit in the schedule. With this new release Alice in Wonderland maintains Disney's high standards with its Blu-ray releases.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Alice in Wonderland Blu-ray rates:
1. Horror film addicts may feel a slight frisson when Alice looks through the keyhole of a locked door in Wonderland and sees her real self sleeping on the other side. Although Disney doesn't exploit the situation, and Alice doesn't "blow her mind" at the realization of her out-of-body experience, the moment reminds us of Mario Bava's dimension-twisting in Operazione Paura.
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T'was Ever Thus.