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Alice in Wonderland (Masterpiece Edition)

Walt Disney Studios Home Entertainment // G // January 27, 2004
List Price: $29.99 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by John Sinnott | posted February 10, 2004 | E-mail the Author
The Movie:

Disney has re-released their 1951 animated classic Alice in Wonderland. This two disc set contains a remastered version of the movie along with several nice bonus features. But is this new set worth upgrading to if you already have the first version?

Most people are probably familiar with the story of Alice in Wonderland. One nice day young Alice is bored, and dreams of another world all her own. No sooner has the thought sprung up in her mind, than a rabbit wearing a waist coat and a pocket watch runs past. Following him into a rabbit hole, she falls a long, long way and lands softly in Wonderland. Here she meets unique and interesting creatures and has many adventures while trying to get back home.

Alice in Wonderland was Walt Disney's 13th animated feature. Released a year after Cinderella, Alice has a gained the reputation of being one of the weaker films to come out of Disney studios, which in only partially justified.

When compared with Lewis Carroll's books, the Disney work is inferior. First, the Disney team melded Carroll's two books, Alice in Wonderland, and Through the Looking Glass, into one conglomeration. Gone are many of the absurd poems that made the books so enjoyable, and those that are retained lose their sense of fun and whimsy. The only trace of Carroll's most famous poem, Jabberwock, is a few lines sung by the Cheshire Cat. A lot of the word play that Carroll used in his book didn't make it to the film either.

But as an animated film, Alice in Wonderland is a wonderful surrealist romp. The film is filled with colorful and bizarre creatures and objects. From talking doorknobs to the Cheshire Cat who devours himself, this is one of the most imaginative movies Disney ever animated. The colors and animation are both spectacular, and the characters, while very strange, are memorable and endearing. Who doesn't remember the White Rabbit's opening line: "I'm late, I'm late, for a very important date. No time to say 'hello,' goodbye, I'm late, I'm late, I'm late."

How does the feature compare to the original DVD release?

This new edition looks better than the original disc, which is saying a lot because the first release was attractive as it was. For this release, the Disney team went above and beyond to create an excellent looking movie. The lines were uniformly sharp throughout, and the level of detail was improved. Presented with a 1.33:1 ratio, as it was originally released, the colors are brighter and more vivid than the previous release. The disc looks remarkable.

Screen capture from Alice in Wonderland's first release (Gold Collection.)
Screen capture from Alice in Wonderland Masterpiece Edition 

On the audio side, there are several different tracks to choose from. There is the original mono track, and Dolby Digital 5.1 tracks available in English, French, and Spanish. Captions for the hard of hearing are available in English.

I was glad that they included the mono track, something that the original release was missing. It's nice to be able to hear how the movie was originally presented. Unfortunately, there was a low level hiss in the mono track, that wasn't too noticeable since there is music in the background through much of this movie. It was noticeable though, especially during the quieter parts.

The 5.1 mix is about as good as can be expected for a soundtrack that was originally recorded in mono. The hiss that was in the mono track was thankfully missing, and the dialog was clear. There was not a lot of use made of the soundstage. Most of the dialog and music was centered over the screen. There was some music channeled to the rear speakers, but few audio effects. This 5.1 mix was superior to the previous releases 5.0 audio. The new sound track was fuller, and did not sound as thin as the old sound track. Not a reference quality disc, but very good none the less.

What extras are included in this set?

There is a huge amount of bonus material included with this release. Some of it I could have done without, but a lot that was really good and adds to the value of the set.

The first disc's extras are clearly aimed at younger viewers, and even taking that into account I found them lacking. The first feature is a Virtual Wonderland Party. This supposedly interactive feature features a live action Mad Hatter Tea Party. After a rather long introduction and song (where the fast forward button is disabled!) you are shown the table where the tea party is to take place. By selecting a dish or cup you are presented with a different video short or activity. Unfortunately, most of these are not interactive. You simply watch the short song or animated bit, none of which last much over a minute. There is a riddle (note the singular,) some cookie recipes, and some short skits, some animated, some with the live action cast. This was a lot more work that it was worth. Even my seven year old was bored with it and wandered off before I was finished exploring this section. Since anyone who would really enjoy this section is probably not old enough to use the remote control, there is also the option to play all the video straight through.

Next up are two Sing-a-long Songs: The Unbirthday Song, and All in the Golden Afternoon. These were nice and appropriate.

Following that is the Adventure in Wonderland Game. Here you have to use your remote to help Alice find her way through three rooms and get back home. The first room has five trivia questions about the movie, which were fun. In the second room you are presented with a series of cards, face down. One turns over, and you have to find its match. Unfortunately you don't get to see the cards at any time, and if you select the wrong card, you don't get to see which card it is, you're just told you are wrong. So this is not a memory game, which might have been interesting, just a guessing game which is really lame. Luckily you have an unlimited number of guesses. The next room contains another guessing game. You are given three cookies and have to choose which order to eat them. There are no clues or hints, you just select which order and it tells you if you are right or not. So, if you were persistent and made it through the game, what do you get? A song from the movie. That's it. I was really disappointed. Your kids will be too.

There are a selection of trailers for recent Disney theatrical and DVD releases: Home on the Range, Brother Bear, Mary Poppins, Mulan II, The Lion King 1 1/2 and a commercial for "Disney Consumer Products".

The last extra on the first DVD is I'm Odd a newly discovered song that the Cheshire Cat was supposed to sing. This is not a vintage recording but a new creation from the original music that was found in the Disney vaults. I liked the song. It was fast and weird, and would have fit in well with the movie.

The second DVD has the really exciting extras. First off is the Disney's first foray into television, the One Hour in Wonderland special. It was broadcast on Christmas Day 1950. Having grown up with The Wonderful World of Disney, I was really looking forward to seeing this show.

There is an interesting story behind how and why this show was broadcast. In 1950, Hollywood was getting a little worried about TV, and they didn't know what to do about it. Walt Disney was of the opinion that it could be a good medium to expand into, but his brother Roy, who handled the money part of the business, disagreed. The common thought at the time was that TV would be bad for theatrical business. Who would pay to go to a theater if you could see a movie at home for free? For that reason Walt did not want to do a weekly show. He was afraid of killing off his theatrical releases, and even if it didn't, there was no way he could produce enough new animation to fill a weekly show. But he still thought television would be a good tool for promoting new features so he made this show to promote the release of Alice in Wonderland.

It was still a risk. If the show did poorly or was panned, that might cause people to stay away from the theaters. So Walt hedged his bets and convinced ventriloquist Edgar Bergen to co-host the show with him. Bergen was a big name at the time and a definite draw. Originally scheduled to air on CBS, the show was moved to NBC after the original network could not guarantee that the minimum number of stations that the sponsor (Coke) required would carry it. NBC would guarantee it, and it ended up showing on 62 stations.

The premise of the show is that Edgar Bergen (along with Charlie McCarthy and Mortimer Snerd) are going to a Christmas party at Walt's place. When he arrives, Kathryn Beaumont who voiced Alice is there (in costume, of course) along with teen heart-throb Bobby Driscoll. Walt has just purchased a Magic Mirror, and unveils it to his guests. They each make requests, and the mirror shows a song Snow White, a Mickey Mouse cartoon, and other Disney clips including a song and short cartoon from Song of the South! At the end, with much cajoling from the guests, the mirror shows the Mad Hatter's Tea Party scene from Alice.

This show was a big hit at the time. Of all the homes watching television that afternoon, an amazing 90% were watching Walt's special!

Viewed today, the show is still a lot of fun. There are cameos by Walt's daughters, and Hans Conreid does a great job as the Magic Mirror. The picture quality is very good for a TV show over 50 years old. There are some spots on the print, but very few. My favorite extra, and well worth upgrading for just this bit.

Getting back to the extras, there is a great short on this disc, 1923's Alice's Wonderland, the first "Alice comedy." Walt created this series of shorts before he came up with the idea for Mickey. It involves a young girl named Alice who visits Disney's animation studio. That night, she dreams that she is in the middle of a cartoon. This short was popular, and Walt ended up making 56 cartoons involving Alice and her interaction with a cartoon world. It was great to see a high quality version of the first one on this DVD.

There are trailers to Alice In Wonderland from the original 1951 release and the 1974 re-release. Also in this section are tow of Walt's introductions to Alice when it was show on Disney's TV show. These are about a minute long.

A 1951 behind the scenes featurette, Operation Wonderland, is also provided. This is a promotional piece, but still very interesting. Walt walks through the animation process, showing storyboards and how the animators draw the cartoons. It runs 11 minutes, and while staged, is still an interesting look at the Disney studios of the 1950's.

The Fred Warring Show was a music show from the 50's and there is a 30 minute excerpt from a 1951 show that featured music from Alice in Wonderland. Walt makes a taped appearance and introduces the Alice segment. There are several numbers preformed, and Kathryn Beaumont and Sterling Holloway make an appearance. While I can't say that I was enthralled with the show, it was nice to see and historically interesting.

In the Deleted Material section we get three items. From Wonderland to Neverland: The Evolution of a Song is a 6 1/2 minute piece hosted by Kathryn Beaumont that discusses how a song that was cut from Alice was reworked for Peter Pan.

There is a Deleted Storyboard Concept, with story boards for a cut scene involving Alice before she goes down the rabbit hole.

Also included are Original Song Demos, recordings done by the Disney music staff during the early stages of production. They include Beware the Jabberwock, Everything Has a Useness, So They Say, Beautiful Soup, Dream Caravan, and If You'll Believe In Me. This was the best part of the Deleted Material section. These were great to listen to, even though some were rough.

Lastly there is an Art Gallery with conceptual art, production photos, character designs, and promotional art. There are almost 60 stills.

Cut to the Chase: Should I upgrade?

An unqualified yes. Disney went to a lot of work and really improved the sound and picture of the movie. That would be enough for some people by it self, but the extra material really adds a lot to the package. Both historical and entertaining, the extras are great to have. If you already own Alice in Wonderland, you should seriously consider double dipping. If you don't own it, this is a no-brainer. Highly Recommended.

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Highly Recommended

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