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Alice in Wonderland (1933)

Kl Studio Classics // Unrated // May 19, 2020
List Price: $29.95 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted May 11, 2020 | E-mail the Author



"And the moral of that is: be what you would like to be. Or, to put it more simply, never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been wasn't otherwise what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise."


"I should understand that better if it were written down. I can't quite follow it as you say it."


"That's nothing to what I could say if I chose. And the moral of that is...oh!"







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You know, if there's one thing sorely lacking from every other adaptation of Lewis Carroll's enduring classic, it's that hardly any of them have a parade of actors playing croquet with actual flamingos in hand, swinging the birds' wobbly heads towards a gaggle of guinea pigs. And I've sat here for hours Googling to track down other films starring an unrecognizable Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle – with tears streaming from his cow mask down onto his testudineous body as he bawls his way through a rendition of "Turtle Soup" – and the list somehow still begins and ends here.




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I was entranced when I first laid eyes on the trailer for Alice in Wonderland. Such titanic stars as Gary Cooper and W.C. Fields are daringly buried under nightmarish, grotesque costuming. Two of the most influential artists in the history of animation contribute a beautiful-slash-horrifying rendition of "The Walrus and the Carpenter". It's a marvel to witness Carroll's fantasy world realized in live-action, with a seemingly endless gauntlet of dazzling visual effects and surreal, expressionist sets. And so much of the author's most delightfully clever wordplay remains wholly intact, threatening to bury this review in blockquotes. The only problem is...well, that there isn't an only problem.




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Conceptually, at least, this adaptation of Alice in Wonderland ought to be a breakneck treat for the senses, bounding from one trippy setpiece to the next – drawing from both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass – without being weighed down by pesky plotting. (Its title is basically as deep a synopsis as you'd need, and besides, if you don't know the main beats by heart already, this isn't exactly how you'd want to be introduced to Wonderland.) And, indeed, a fair number of its most playful moments work, such as Alice arguing to a family of anthropomorphic chess pieces that she's neither a cyclone nor volcano (nor a cyclano nor volcone), the Gryphon and Mock Turtle's infectiously silly primer to education in Wonderland, and the iconic exchange with a certain Cheshire cat. Some of the casting is truly inspired, most memorably Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter and a scene-stealing Edna May Oliver as the Red Queen. There's no shortage of visual wizardry to gawk at, particularly the background behind Alice suddenly repainting itself with directions to the Mad Hatter and March Hare. Far more often than not, alas, Alice in Wonderland proves to be somewhat a slog to endure.




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There's too meager a sense of fun or whimsy or adventure. Several of these vignettes unfold at an interminably glacial pace, with Carroll's deft plays on words ravaged by dry, lifeless line readings. And it doesn't help that the film takes a mindboggling amount of time to lurch forward in the first place, between its absurdly long opening credits and a governess sequence that's making me doze off at my keyboard even just thinking about it. W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty ought to be an unforgettable showstopper; instead, it feels as if I've done something terribly wrong, and this is my punishment. Charlotte Henry is charming enough in the titular role but is too flat and passive to make for much of a heroine. Worlds removed from the wide-eyed fantasy and sense of wonder that would pervade The Wizard of Oz just a few years later, the tone here tends to land somewhere between "waking nightmare" and "zzzZZZzzz". And while indulging in delirious, imaginative nonsense has always rather been the point, it doesn't feel as if there's much of anything in the way of a character arc for Alice or the loosest narrative thread to connect it all, leaving me with even less to engage with.




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Alice in Wonderland most greatly succeeds as a curiosity, given its parade of Paramount's most brightly shining stars – however unrecognizable they may be here – and its intriguingly off-kilter visual design. I'm still thankful that I've been able to experience it, especially now that it's found its way to Blu-ray, but I don't see myself pressing firmly against the mirror in my home theater to return to Wonderland again any time soon. Rent It / Stream It.


Video








"If you're going to turn into a pig, my dear, I'll have nothing more to do with you."







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If the opening Universal fanfare is any indication, still referencing the studio's website and in a thicker font, this master dates back at least ten years – perhaps closer to fifteen, if not older still. The presentation is entirely watchable, but Alice in Wonderland remains in desperate need of a new scan and loving remaster. As the image above suggests, the remaining film elements are not in the most pristine condition, with vertical scratches in particular present throughout much of its runtime. Grain tends to be strangely resolved, looking more like coarse video noise rather than something truly filmic. Highlights are at times blown out. Somewhat relentlessly bobbing up and down, the image is so jittery that it wound up giving my wife a headache. This can also result in noticeable ghosting; look at the top of Alice's head and the heart-shaped window on the right, for instance:




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The elements appear to have so unevenly worn that the presentation can be crisp and well-defined one moment, devolve into a mildly stretched blur a few frames later, and then cycle back and forth throughout the entirety of a sequence. It can't help but look unstable:




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While Alice in Wonderland does delight in playing with framerate, there are a few times, such as when Alice turns to look at the shelf of aidepolcycnE acinnattirB, where frames are missing altogether. I'm not sufficiently acquainted with the film to say if that's deliberate or not. It also looks as if lower quality elements were all that was available for some stretches:




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It may also be worth mentioning how much the image degrades in certain effects shots. Some generation loss is very much to be expected, of course, but viewers should be cautioned just how significant it can be at times:




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I have no doubt that Kino Lorber Studio Classics has faithfully represented the master that Universal supplied; I certainly wouldn't have expected them to shell out for a dual-layer disc given that this is a 76 minute film, and yet...! I really wish that Universal would've revisited Alice in Wonderland in more recent years, though. This aging master is acceptable, I suppose, but it's far from the cause for celebration to which I'd hoped to be treated.




Audio





Presented in two-channel mono, Alice in Wonderland's 16-bit DTS-HD Master Audio soundtrack fares far better than the visual end of this disc. Admittedly, frequency response is limited, so don't expect Dimitri Tiomkin's score to roar from your front mains. The lossless audio isn't marred by any intrusive background noise, and it's similarly free of any pops, clicks, dropouts, and whatever else is on the usual laundry list. Strain shows in the most chaotic moments and particularly loudly shouted lines, but that's rare and entirely bearable besides. There were a handful of lines in Alice in Wonderland's opening moments that I wasn't quite able to fully discern as clearly as I would've liked, such as one or two of the words in Alice's first line below:







...but I watched the film with my wife who didn't share any such concerns, so I guess that just falls on me. Pleasant enough a listen, to be sure.




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Also included are an audio commentary and an optional set of English subtitles.



Extras





  • Audio Commentary: Lee Gambin contributes a comprehensive and wonderfully well-researched commentary. He explores many other film adaptations of the classic Lewis Carroll story, including those preceding this 1933 version and, having penned We Can Be Who We Are: Movie Musicals from the 1970s, even the erotic musical from '76. Virtually everyone on either side of Alice's cameras is discussed at length, from an 8 year old Billy Barty as the Pig Baby to ever-present Alice stand-in Sue Kellogg. Gambin strikes a terrific balance between research and analysis, whether he's delving into the origins of "The Walrus and the Carpenter" animated sequence by Harman and Ising, how intensely W.C. Fields loathed the Humpty Dumpty makeup, Alice's journey as that of a young girl uncomfortably coming of age, or explaining the dichotomy of the Duchess and the Cook. Among a great many other topics, Gambin also reads from contemporaneous reviews and explains why he believes the film proved a failure at the box office.




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  • Theatrical Trailer (3 min.; SD): This two and a half minute trailer for Alice in Wonderland is joined by trailers for a few other KL Studio Classics releases, among them Jack the Giant Killer, The Magic Sword, and, in high definition, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.



The Final Word





While Alice in Wonderland is far from the stupidest tea party I was ever at in all my life, I do wish that Universal would have lavished this 1933 live-action adaptation with a shiny, new remaster before licensing it to KL Studio Classics. Still, given its languid pace and near-total lack of narrative, Alice in Wonderland would've been difficult to recommend even if it'd boasted a world class presentation. Some will surely find its obscured star power, fascinatingly grotesque costumes, and visual flair to be irresistible – that's certainly why I made a point to push through the looking glass, at least – but I'd suggest that those as yet unacquainted Rent It or Stream It first.



I Took Entirely Too Many Screenshots






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