Thursday, January 27, 2011

Alice in Wonderland (1951) Blu-ray Review

Alice in Wonderland is Walt Disney’s thirteenth animated classic which was released in 1951 and was based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland with a little bit of his Through the Looking-Glass as well.  Although the film is considered a classic now (and the springboard for the 2010 live-action film by Tim Burton), it wasn’t as successful at the time of its release due to the unusual nature of the movie. The movie was not the usual Disney fare with it’s topsy-turvy logic, crazy characters, and loopy narrative, but the movie was important to Disney, who spent eighteen years trying to bring it to the big-screen after his first attempt with a live-action Alice short didn’t take off.

Film (4 out of 5 stars)

When Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) grows bored listening to her sister, she wanders off and decides to follow a White Rabbit (Bill Thompson) who leads her to Wonderland, a place where nothing is as it seems.  She soon meets Tweedledee and Tweedledum (J. Pat O’Malley) and the enigmatic Cheshire Cat (Sterling Holloway) who confuse and unsettle her.  Things get even more crazy when she meets The Mad Hatter (Ed Wynn) and the March Hare (Jerry Colonna) who invite her to join their madcap tea party where everyone constantly rotates around the table while they celebrate their “UnBirthdays.”

After spinning around from talking doorknobs, flowers, and caterpillars, Alice finally come into contact with what should represent normality when she discovers the castle of the Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton).  Unfortunately for her, the Queen is just as mad as everyone else in Wonderland.  With a penchant for ordering heads chopped off from anyone that crosses her in any way, the Queen’s madness is by far the most dangerous.  From her subjects to the playing cards that serve as her guards, everyone is terrified of her and will do anything to keep her happy, including painting white roses red. 

By the end, everything goes even more mad as Alice attempts to escape the surreal Wonderland to return to the reality that she once found boring. Alice in Wonderland doesn’t receive the same love and respect that the rest of the Disney movies have in spades and other than The Black Cauldron, there isn’t a more maligned Disney movie out there.  It didn’t do well at the box office or with critics but as time went on and after being re-released into theaters and later on video and now on Blu-ray, it has finally achieved the acceptance than Walt always dreamed of.

I can understand why a lot of people were taken aback by this black sheep of Disney productions – it’s surreal, weird, and deliberately illogical and silly.  While there was plenty of silliness in other Disney movies, none of them could match this movie’s surreal meanderings.  Although the movie is a visual delight with many memorable characters, it suffers from a weak script.  There isn’t a well defined plot for this movie, instead we journey along with Alice as she bounces from one strange encounter to another.

This movie also has more songs that any other Disney movie but they aren’t as memorable as usual for a Disney film with the exception of the “UnBirthday Song,” which has also served as the music for the Mad Tea Cup ride at Disneyland.  All in all, this was an ambitious effort by Walt Disney that didn’t pay off for a long time.  Now the movie is cherished by many and was successfully re-imagined by Tim Burton in 3D.

Video (5 out of 5 stars)

As much as I dislike waiting so long between Disney animated releases, it’s really obvious why they take so long to get released as soon as you see how good the movie looks.  I don’t think any studio is as consistent in putting out stellar audio and video releases as Disney.  This 1080p (1.33:1) transfer is perfection and it looks like a movie that was just made last summer.  The colors are as vivid as any I’ve seen, and there isn’t a blemish or artifact to be found anywhere.  Black levels are rich and dark, and the contrast between the darkness and the effervescent colors is startlingly beautiful.  All of the effort to capture Wonderland’s varied colors and rich environments has been made worthwhile by this high definition release.  This is reference quality.

Audio ( 4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

This amazing restoration didn’t just stop with the picture quality, as this DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix is also impressive.  The dialogue is clear and understandable and the music is present but never overbearing.  Sound effects have been effectively distributed across the channels, making this a more lively mix that you would think possible for a sixty year old film.

Special Features ( 5 out of 5 stars)

Not only is there a bunch of new features for this Blu-ray release, but there’s also all of the previous extras from the DVD release and Disney even upgraded some of them to HD!  All of the new extras are in HD as well as the older extras that have been tagged as being upgraded.

Brand-New Blu-ray Features:
  • Through the Keyhole: A Companion’s Guide to Wonderland – View the movie in this special mode and discover references to the original Lewis Carroll classic. Kathryn Beaumont introduces this picture in picture jam packed full length video commentary.  A combination of Disney and Carroll historians join forces to cover every aspect of the movie, the genesis of the story, and about the people behind the movie and book.  Substantial and with so much info that there’s never a break.

  • Disney View – Watch the movie in this expanded viewing experience with new Disney art in the wings of the screen.  Some nice images for the sides of the screen that blend well with the movie.

  • Painting the Roses Red Game – Help paint the roses red in the Queen’s garden.  Careful, or someone could lose their head.  An interactive game for kids to play.

  • Walt Disney Color TV Introduction (1959) – A never-before-seen color TV intro by Walt.  It’s always good see the Mousetro himself introduce projects he was passionate about.

  • Reference Footage: Alice and the Doorknob – Kathryn Beaumont, the voice of Alice, provides an introduction to this newly discovered reference footage of Alice talking to the doorknob.  The animators did a lot of live action sketching to make sure it all looked right even down to the material of her dress.

  • Pencil Test: Alice Shrinks – Kathryn Beaumont introduces a newly discovered pencil test of Alice shrinking.

Plus, Classic Features:
  • I’m Odd” Newly Discovered Cheshire Cat Song – This was a song conceived for the Cheshire Cat with an intro by Kathryn Beaumont.

  • Thru the Mirror Mickey Mouse Animated Short (Now in Hi-Def) – Classic Mickey cartoon where he goes through a mirror to a new world of dancing cards and jealous Kings.

  • Art Gallery - (with new design and 81 images)

  • Reflections on Alice – Kathryn Beaumont and Disney artists reflect on the making of the movie.

  • Operation Wonderland (Now in Hi-Def) – James Melton visits Walt and gets a tour of the Alice in Wonderland production on Walt’s train.

  • One Hour in Wonderland – Kathryn Beaumont and Peter Pan’s Bobby Driscoll host this TV segment that shows off some Disney clips and music from Disney movies like Alice in Wonderland, Snow White, and Song of the South!

  • An Alice Comedy: Alice’s Wonderland – One of the earlier attempts by Walt who created short silent shorts about Alice in Wonderland before making the animated one.

  • Original Theatrical Trailers (1951 and 1974)

  • Walt Disney TV Introduction (1954 and 1964) – Walt’s introductions for the movie both times it was shown on TV.

  • The Fred Waring Show (Excerpt) – A selection of songs from the movie are sung by the in house singers for the program.  Stars Kathryn Beaumont and Sterling Holloway appear as well.

  • Deleted Materials:
    • Deleted Scene: Pig and Pepper
    • From Wonderland to Neverland: The Evolution of a Song – An entertaining look at how a song originally written for Alice in Wonderland, finally found its home in another Disney favorite, Peter Pan.
    • Deleted Storyboard Concept: Alice Daydreams in the Park – Deleted storyboard sequence set to music.
    • Original Song Demos: “Beware The Jabberwock”; “Everything Has A Useness”; “So They Say”; “Beautiful Soup”; “Dream Caravan”; and “If You’ll Believe In Me.”

Final Thoughts (4 1/2 out of 5 stars)

The movie is one of Disney’s most imaginative efforts and it’s been lovingly restored and packed with a ton of interesting special features.  Even if you have the previous DVD version of the movie, I recommend upgrading to this Blu-ray because the audio/video quality alone is worth the extra cost.  All of the extensive extras make it an even easier decision!

Give yourself an UnBirthday gift and buy it today!

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