Tuesday, February 1, 2011

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (Disney 1951) Disney Home Video

In hindsight, it is perhaps easiest to understand Walt Disney’s Alice in Wonderland (1951)as a sublime failed masterpiece. Peerless and inventive in its animation, the film nevertheless falls curiously short of audience expectations. The film's ultimate status as a financial - though never artistic - flop is more easily understood when one considers that the original source material by Lewis Carroll is not a children’s book, but rather a very clever and utterly scathing social satire; its critique of English aristocracy and parliament ingeniously grafted onto a fairytale world.

Unfortunately for Walt, Carroll’s brilliant word play quickly became an ill fit for the studio's visual flair. Indeed, from its inception, Walt did not want to make the picture. Instead, it was his chief story editor Joe Grant who became the proponent for reproducing Carroll’s literary classic as an animated masterpiece.

For Grant, the choice of ‘Alice’ seemed a natural. In 1923, Disney had very successfully experimented with a superficial version of the story; the Alice Comedies, that placed a live girl into an animated world. Furthermore, for sometime in the early thirties Walt had toyed with the idea of making an ‘Alice’ live action feature starring Mary Pickford. Instead, Paramount latched onto this idea, producing an all-star extravaganza that miserably failed to catch the public’s fancy.

Then in 1940, Disney briefly tampered with the idea of commissioning Aldous Huxley to write a manageable adaptation of Carroll's classic. WWII and other financial commitments forced such plans into moratorium for the duration of the war. Hence, by 1951 the idea of finally making ‘Alice’ into an animated feature must have seemed less fresh and exciting to Disney and his artisans.

From a creative aspect, the animators were bound to Tenniel’s famous illustrations in the Carroll book and by a loyalist following to Carroll’s written words. Alas, in the final analysis, the latter proved to be everything, working against the Disney brand of inimitable magic. English purists exhibited equal portions of shock, dismay and anger at the time of ‘Alice’s’ general release, mostly over Walt’s omission of many of the novel’s beloved central characters.

Indeed, in choosing to focus on a handful of vignettes from Carroll’s novel - with Alice (voiced by Kathryn Beaumont) herself serving as the central focus – the film's narrative became glaringly episodic rather than transitional, with oddities like the Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton) and the Caterpillar (Richard Hayden) floating in and out of the story rather than contributing to the overall arc of Alice’s self discovery.

In retrospect, removing Carroll’s subliminal thread of social criticism makes the characters – as Alice herself was to comment throughout the film - “curiouser and curiouser,” the tart malice of the original text suddenly distilled into crude Vaudeville with fairly pretty songs that purists found insulting and, more to the point, miserably failed to yield a single memorable hit.

Yet, there is much to admire in the animation itself – the rambunctiously executed Mad Hatter (magnificently voiced by Ed Wynn) tea party sequence being an outstanding highlight of the film, as is the final mock crocket tournament and confrontation between Alice and the Queen of Hearts. The inspired brilliance of the Cheshire Cat (Sterling Holloway) – also contributes a reoccurring thread in Alice’s whacky adventure.

In the end, however, the conflicting temperaments between Disney and Carroll seem to have been too great a chasm for even Walt to bridge. Carroll’s central desire - to expose social chaos as insanity unhinged - remains a pertinent part of the Disney version but without the clairvoyant verve or even thin veneer of acidic reflection on a timely political view that made experiencing the book worthwhile.

When first we meet Alice, she is lazily perched atop a tree branch with her beloved cat, Dinah listening to a history lesson read by her elder sister, Lorina (Heather Angel). Alice becomes distracted by the appearance of the White Rabbit (Bill Thompson) and follows this panicky creature into a burrow that instantly turns into a very deep and seemingly bottomless pit.

Eventually landing in a topsy-turvy world far below, Alice endures one bizarre encounter with wonderland's inhabitants after another. Dodo (also Bill Thompson) encourages Alice to join a pointless Caucus race on the beach where the sea is ever threatening to drag everyone below its encroaching waves. Tweedles Dee and Dumb (J. Pat O'Malley) expose Alice to the tale of the Walrus and the Carpenter.

After a brief encounter with a pompous Caterpillar, Alice finds herself in a lush garden where she is mistaken to be, first a flower, then a weed, by the Rose (Doris Lloyd). Along the way, the Cheshire Cat frequently provides misdirection to further exacerbate Alice's patience and steer her into even more threatening circumstances.

Alice stumbles upon the Mad Hatter's cottage where he is celebrating an un-birthday with the neurotic Dormouse (James MacDonald) and utterly insane March Hare (Jerry Colonna). This encounter leads Alice to her final destination, the garden of the Queen of Hearts where she is told by several playing cards that all of the misplaced white roses must be painted red, lest the Queen's wrath be incurred.

Regrettably, Alice is the one discovered holding a bucket of red paint when the Queen arrives. She is put on trial for her crime against the crown and condemned to death. But Alice escapes her fate but waking up. It seems the entire journey has been nothing more than a very frightening dream. Lorina asks Alice to receipt her history lesson, whereupon the shaken Alice mutters some confused poetic prose taught to her by the Caterpillar. Resigned to the fact that Alice will never make a scholar, Lorina takes her home at the end of their golden afternoon in the country.

Alice in Wonderland is hardly perfect entertainment. Nor is it high art as represented elsewhere in the Disney canon of animated classics, and yet the film continues to resonate a strange sense of doomed wonderment long after its final reel has faded to black. The film's sparks of brilliance, sporadically peppered throughout its narrative, are nevertheless sustainable enough to prevent any critic from classifying the entire enterprise as an out and out failure. In the final analysis, Alice in Wonderland is watchable and even deserving of our renewed respect. It gets an 'A+' for effort. It's final grade, however, is considerable lower.

Disney's new Blu-ray easily trumps the old 2-disc Limited Edition DVD from five years ago. The full frame image positively glows with exemplary colour saturation. For the first time anywhere, we can actually see brush strokes and minute detail in the breathtakingly original artwork featured throughout the film. The image throughout is both bright and pristine, exhibiting no age related artefacts.

The audio is a new, and uncharacteristically aggressive 5.1 DTS mix that is quite simply invigorating - especially during the musical sequences with a robust bass and sparklingly clear fidelity.

The studio still has not seen fit to provide a comprehensive documentary on the making of the film - as with virtually all the other classic animated features presently released on Blu-ray. However, in absence of such an offering, Disney has done the next best thing with an interactive 'Through the Keyhole' companion's guide that plays simultaneously with the film and features interviews, original art work and commentary that takes one step by step through the creation of the film.

The other feature new to this release is 'Painting the Roses Red' - a puzzle game that I must confess held little appeal for this critic, though I can certainly see how wee ones and maybe even families will enjoy it immensely. For the rest, Disney has included all the added extras from its 2-disc DVD offering. These include vintage screen test footage, animation galleries, vintage television broadcasts with Kathryn Beaumont and Walt at Disneyland, and other minor gems to enjoy. Bottom line: recommended!

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)






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