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ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Review by Michael Jacobson

Voices:  Kathryn Beaumont, Sterling Holloway, Ed Wynn, Jerry Colonna, Verna Felton, Bill Thompson
Directors:  Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske
Audio:  Dolby Digital 5.1, Dolby Mono
Video:  Full Frame 1.33:1
Studio:  Walt Disney
Features:  See Review
Length:  75 Minutes
Release Date:  January 27, 2004

"Begin at the beginning."

"And when you come to the end...STOP!"

Film **

Alice in Wonderland had been a dream project of Walt Disney's for about as long as his studio had been in existence.  It seemed like a perfect match on paper:  Lewis Carroll's eternally enchanting stories of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass married to Disney's impeccable ability to bring classic tales to life with animation and music.

But the end result was a bit cool, and a little more than off-putting.  It's always pained me to say it, but Alice has never been one of my favorite Disney offerings.  The charm of Carroll's stories seemed completely lost under the weight of animation that cared about the stories' oddities and not much else.  Most every character in the movie is loathsome, and Alice is a bland protagonist at best.  Even Disney would later dismiss his own creation, saying it was "full of weird characters".

The original books were staples of my childhood, and like they did for many kids over the years, they captured and fueled my imagination.  To be fair to Walt, I don't think any filmed version has lived up the vision that played out in my head.  To be even more fair, Alice in Wonderland was plagued with its share of troubles, from numerous starts and stops, to endless re-designs, to a catalogue of some 50 songs that were mostly unused, to the fact that the second World War put production on hold for a number of years and so on.

The original stories were episodic, witty, and creative.  The movie is void of structure and direction.  Alice meanders through non-related scenarios, meets strange beings and sees unusual things, and eventually wakes up to find there's no place like home (or something thereabout).  There are no less than 13 story writers credited to the picture...can adapting a book really be so hard?

Too many cooks frequently spoil the broth, which is why Alice feels so disjointed.  It captured the quirkiness of Carroll but none of the wit or charm.  Some parts of it seem downright mean spirited, such as the caterpillar who blows smoke in Alice's face, or the bellowing queen who beheads her subjects on whims.  The poor white rabbit is tormented throughout, be it the dodo who tries to burn his house down, or the irritating Mad Hatter and March Hare destroying his pocket watch.

What few songs survived are surprisingly unmemorable, given how many great tunes Disney films had given us up to that point.  The best song, "I'm Late", really didn't make it in except for a few spoken words.  "The Unbirthday Song" and "How Do You Do and Shake Hands" were both stripped down (I had a record of the songs when I was younger, and they were actually better and much fuller). 

As far as the animation goes, the best parts are physical comedy bits and visual puns, like the bread and butterflies, or the tea party ("Only half a cup!").  Others seem rehashed...the walrus and the carpenter reminded me an awful lot of the cat and fox from Pinocchio.

I'm railing on and on here, which I tend to do after seeing the movie for the first time in a long while.  I don't hate it, by any stretch.  I'm just disappointed in it.  It reminds me of the weaker efforts the studio would put forth in the years immediately following Walt's death, instead of being an example from his heyday.  It's a colorful production with a good share of wonder; kids always seem captivated by it. 

But Disney's best animated films also appealed to the grown-ups, too, and that's where Alice falls flat.  Every time I watch it, I end up wishing I'd picked up one of the books instead.  Maybe that can be considered a legacy in its own right.

Video ****

This Masterpiece Edition from Disney is as stunning as we've come to expect.  From the opening scene, I was very impressed with the brightness of the colors, the clarity of the images, and the cleanliness of the print.  Despite the strong and sometimes jarring tones, I didn't pick up on any bleeding or distortions, nor did I notice any undue grain or compression.  This film not only looks remarkable for ITS age, it looks remarkable for ANY age.

Audio **1/2

I had a few issues with the 5.1 remix...namely, the subwoofer signal was frequently strong and out of balance with the rest of the mix.  Low notes in the musical score thump out over everything else, and the effect was sometimes distracting.  The rest of the audio sounded clear enough, with a fair amount of dynamic range, but thin sounding dialogue reminding you of the movie's age.

Features ***1/2

Plenty of stuff for the kiddies here, plus a few choice goodies for the adults as well.

Disc One features some sing-along tunes, a desktop game, and a virtual tea party that lets you interact and have fun along the way.  There is also the Mickey Mouse short "Thru the Mirror", and the recreation of a lost Cheshire Cat song "I'm Odd" (introduced by Kathryn Beaumont...the voice of Alice!). 

Disc Two contains the 50s television featurette "One Hour in Wonderland", featuring Edgar Bergen and Charlie McCarthy, Walt Disney, the young Kathryn Beaumont and more.  Clips from Disney films are featured, including a full clip from Song of the South, which may be the closest we'll ever get to seeing the film on home video.  It's a nice throwback treat, but even more so is the original "Alice" silent cartoon "Alice's Wonderland" (Disney experimented with combining a live action girl with animation back in the 20s...these "Alice" films were delightful, but largely forgotten today).

There are also art galleries, deleted materials, a pair of trailers, and two of Walt Disney's television introductions.  Both feature animated menu screens.  The disc also comes with a card set.

Summary:

Alice in Wonderland is considered to be a classic by many, but a pretty-but-mediocre offering by me.  I don't think this is one of Walt's finest moments, but if you do, this amazing new DVD is certainly the way to go.