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Alice in Wonderland
Ah, the crass commercial tie-in. You've got to love those companies, including the ones in the business of banking on their own latest incarnation, who trot out a similarly themed or named product to jump on the bandwagon of a perceived phenomenon in the making. Case in point - Tim Burton's take on Alice in Wonderland. With Disney itself diving in, adding to its already bugling coffers by releasing a reissue of its cartoon take from 1951, the House of Mouse proves that it can have its reimagining and reap the ancillary financial rewards too. Of course, this hasn't stopped others from doing the same. Universal cranked out a nice rerelease of the official 1933 Tinseltown take (with Cary Grant and W. C. Fields), while various off-brand animation houses have tried to trick the viewer with their own cartoon claim to the Lewis Carroll classic. But one of the oddest coattail riders comes from DVD distributor Infinity. It has taken a silent version of Alice from 1915, meshed it with two completely unrelated efforts from Disney circa 1925, pasted on a weird French animated look at the material and an equally unhinged UK musical presentation from 1972 and put it all out for unsuspecting consumers to collect. It makes for a highly unusual bit of cross promotion.
As with the many divergent translations of Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, the four efforts offered here are literally all over the map. The silent Alice in Wonderland from 1915 does a decent job of mixing then cutting edge F/X with a fairly faithful adaptation of the source. On the other hand, 1925's Alice's Adventures in Cartoonland has almost nothing to do with the famed books. Instead, they exist in a weird animation parallel where Walt Disney, more or less following Carroll's conceit, placed a "live action" character into a fictional world filled with his standard set of cartoon creatures. Pen and ink are also an important part of Alice of Wonderland in Paris (1966), which seems to think that lovers of the former's fantasy leanings will also enjoy a tedious tour de France. They couldn't be more misguided. Finally, the British take on their literary heritage with darkly bizarre results. This 1972 musical version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland features an all-star UK cast (including Peter Sellers and Dudley Moore) more than a few hummable tunes, and a design that's both amusing and menacing.
Compilations like this are almost always a let down. No matter how rarified or routine the inclusion, we wind up feeling the slightest sense of slapdash subterfuge. Of course, Infinity could have helped its case with some better tech specs (more on this down below), but in general, the three feature films presented are prime for some level of individual rediscovery. Alice in Wonderland (***) illustrates why the silent genre remains both elusive and very effective. Without having to worry about what these characters sound like (or providing realistic mouth movements), director W. W. Young and his F/X team mimic the Victorian vitriol of John Tenniel and come up with a weird, winning combination. The movie magic employed here is just amazing, and though definitely ancient in technique and modern equivalent, it really works here. This is especially true when Alice first falls down the rabbit hole as well as when she comes across the Dodo, the Walrus, and the rest of the animal convention. It's a shame that the same can't be said for Disney's dopey Alice's Adventures in Cartoonland (*1/2). Consisting of two unrelated shorts, we get lots of elementary slapstick, and that's about it.
Alice of Wonderland in Paris (**) is also problematic. The meta nature of the narrative (Alice is now famous since her adventures in Wonderland, and wants to visit the City of Light as part of her new celebrity status) is kind of interesting, but the appeal is very limited. Even more disconcerting, Carroll is pushed aside so that five other short stories - Ludwig Bemelmans' "Madeline and the Bad Hat" and "Madeline and the Gypsies", Eve Titus' "Anatole", Crockett Johnson's "The Frowning Prince," and James Thurber's "Many Moons" - can be interpreted and presented. Huh? While the voice work is consistently interesting (including former Your Show of Shows stars Howard Morris, and Carl Reiner, as well as Underdog actor Allen Swift) the plotlines are wildly inconsistent and frequently unfulfilling. Besides, the drawings are dull and rather derivative, very little of either the old world whimsy of Tenniel or the post-modern patina of Disney's definitive cartoon treatment present. This just leaves Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (***1/2) to save the day. It almost does.
What could have been a revelation, a chance to see such now known British luminaries as Michael Crawford (White Rabbit) Sir Ralph Richardson (The Caterpillar) Roy Kinnear (The Cheshire Cat) and the amazing Sir Robert Helpman (as a remarkable Mad Hatter) in a true musical marvel is instead a battle between transfer and talent. The image problems here start right up front - the print presented is terrible, faded and foggy. It's almost as if someone set up their old VHS camcorder, turned on their TV, took out a tenth generation video dub of this 1972 title, and then filmed the half-baked picture coming out of the VCR and across the creaky cathode ray. Luckily, the material more than compensates for the miserable look, if just barely. The songs, by composer John Barry (James Bond, Midnight Cowboy) and Don Black are excellent, doing a nice job of fleshing out the film's psychological components, while the costume and art design reinterpret Tenniel without going frozen mask overboard. Indeed, had we been given a true remaster of this lost treasure, there'd a significant reason to invest in this otherwise ordinary compilation. With the subpar specs, however, we are stuck with something that holds a lot of promise and potential, but lacking in the ability to deliver.
Addressing the image once again, only the musical Alice looks complete miserable. The rest of the 1.33:1 full screen transfer is actually pretty good. The silent version suffers from several different title card designs (some look very old, some look like they were photoshopped last week) as well as a watermark at the corner of the frame, while the Disney cartoons are dark and highly contrasted. The French Alice looks the best, though there's definitely a syndicated television tinge to the presentation. That just leave the UK offering, and it truly is a crime how this movie is mistreated.
Nothing much to celebrate here. The Dolby Digital Stereo 2.0 mix is tinny and thin, and that's to be expected. The scores for both the silent and Disney Alices sound rinky-dink and unsophisticated. The French Alice once again comes out on top, the accordion tinged backdrop providing a nice Parisian feel. As with the visuals, the sonic situation with the musical Alice is equally mediocre.
None - after all, Infinity brags about giving you a two disc set on one double layered DVD. Oh boy!
Based strictly on the content, this Alice in Wonderland compilation deserves a slight Recommended rating. The silent version and the musical update are worth your time, while the Paris parameters of the animated offering provide more than a few moments of enjoyment. As for the Disney inclusion - the less said about it, the better. Still, you will have to suffer through some of the most slipshod, lacking technical specs ever offered by a legitimate DVD distributor. If it is a question of availability or cost, one can easily understand the almost unwatchable image. But with Johnny Depp and the gang raking in the scratch around the world, and a seemingly unending appetite for Alice reaching its considered commercial fervor, would a digital tweaking really be out of the question? Whatever the reason, you have been warned. These Alices in Wonderland all suffer from some manner of critical and creative comparison - and in one case, the visuals almost undermine the entire package.
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