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Alice in Wonderland

(1951) *** G
75 min. Walt Disney Pictures. Directors: Hamilton S. Luske, Wilfred Jackson, Clyde Geronimi. Cast: Sterling Holloway, Ed Wynn, Kathryn Beaumont.

/content/films/3946/1.jpgFor American children, Disney is often a "gateway drug" to fairy tales, folk tales, and children's literature. The metaphor applies especially well to Alice in Wonderland, the trippiest narrative in the canon of Disney features. I'm not sure there's anyone alive that believes the 1951 film lives up to Lewis Carroll's deathless 1865 novel Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, but the animated feature remains a perfectly decent slice of kid-friendly surrealism, and an enticement to seek out Carroll's work.

For those who have been living under a rock, the tale concerns a somewhat spoiled but imaginative girl named Alice (Kathryn Beaumont) who, in the film, longs for an escape from her dreary days studying under her older sister (Heather Angel). Her chance promptly arrives when a White Rabbit (Bill Thompson) with a pocket watch skitters through, excitedly telling himself, "I'm late! I'm late! For a very important date!" Alice takes a tumble down the rabbit hole, becomes conscious of her size while trying to make it through a small door, and eventually emerges into the psychedelic Wonderland. There she meets a crazy cast of characters that includes Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Pat O'Malley), the hookah-smoking Caterpillar (Richard Haydn), and semi-visible Cheshire Cat (Sterling Holloway). There's also a most unusual "Unbirthday" party attended by the Mad Hatter (Ed Wynn), March Hare (Jerry Colonna), and Dormouse (James MacDonald) and a climactic meeting with the homicidal Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton).

Disney obviously felt a kinship with Carroll's work, though Alice proved a tough nut for Uncle Walt to crack. Designers flirted with darker designs closer to the idiosyncracy of John Tenniel's celebrated original illustrations, the resultant film fell back on a safer, softer approach. The relatively cuddly creatures of the Disney Alice probably have much to do with the film's moderate critical reputation, but the film certainly has moments of animated brilliance (I'm partial to the fluid, synchronized weirdness of the Queen of Hearts' army of playing cards). The lack of a narrative imperative isn't so much a problem as the blandness of Alice's character, who is little more than her curiosity, as passive as the audience for whom she is the surrogate. Still, Alice can stand beside the other classics made in Walt's lifetime for its post-Vaudevillian showmanship: the limber voice work by a collection of top talent, the ever-blooming songs (fourteen—more than in any other Disney feature, though each song is bite-sized), and the primary-colored blasts of imagery, largely credited to designer Mary Blair. Alice's story has undergone over fifteen filmed versions, but this one still has the greatest cultural foothold.

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Aspect ratios: 1.32:1

Number of discs: 2

Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1

Street date: 2/1/2011

Distributor: Walt Disney Home Entertainment

Disney delivers a customarily impressive package for Alice in Wonderland as it makes its Blu-ray debut in a Blu-ray + DVD combo pack. The image quality is flawless, with blazingly beautiful color leaping off the screen and a sharpness the likes of which the film has probably never before seen in any format. The total absence of digital artifacting and perfect cleanliness of the image makes the Blu-ray a confident buy for consumers: it's impossible to imagine the film looking any better, and the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix utterly maximizes the source elements, providing the utmost clarity and a good effort to layer the original monaural sound (offered on a separate track).

Playback comes with the DisneyView viewing option, meaning that the "academy ratio" image can be seen with specially created framing rather than black bars on the sides of your widescreen TV.

The core extra of the Backstage Disney section is Through the Keyhole: A Companion's Guide to Wonderland. This well-made video commentary, introduced by Kathryn Beaumont (Alice) includes contributions from a roundup of authorities: Disney and Carroll expert Brian Sibley, animation critic and historian Charles Solomon, Victorian literature professor Morton Cohen, Disney Imagineer Daniel Singer, historian Paula Sigmond, animator and story artist Will Finn, and animation art historian and conservator Ron Barbagallo. The origins of the book and film are explored in depth, and Beaumont offers some personal recollections, as the film plays out in smaller windows alongside the talking heads and archival imagery.

"Reference Footage: Alice and the Doorknob" (1:33, HD) presents a snippet of the original live-action black-and-white footage shot for animators, and comes with optional audio commentary by Kathryn Beaumont. Another rare bit of production footage we're offered is "Pencil Test: Alice Shrinks" (:54, HD).

The Family Play section includes "Walt Disney TV Introduction (1959)" (1:15, HD) from a Christmas-time broadcast of the film and the Painting the Roses Red Game.

Lastly, we get a full archive of Classic DVD Features. The recently produced doc "Reflections of Alice" (13:27, SD)includes comments from historians Charles Solomon, Stacia Martin, Paula Sigman, John Canemaker, and Lella F. Smith; animators Eric Goldberg, Andreas Deja, and Frank Thomas; storyboard artist Floyd Norman; Alice authority Matt Crandall; senior vice president of Walt Disney Imagineering Tony Baxter; and Beaumont.

"Operation Wonderland" (10:59, HD) is an excerpt from a 1951 episode of Ford Star Revue.

"'I'm Odd' Newly Discovered Cheshire Cat Song" (3:56, SD) gets introduced by Beaumont.

"'Through the Mirror' Mickey Mouse Animated Short" (8:49, HD) hails from 1936.

"One Hour in Wonderland" (59:26, SD) is a 1950 episode of Walt Disney Presents with Beaumont appearing alongside other guest stars.

"An Alice Comedy: Alice's Wonderland" (8:06, SD) is the 1923 silent short subject from Disney.

Original Theatrical Trailers includes the "1951 Original Theatrical Trailer" (2:02, SD) and the "1974 Theatrical Release Trailer" (1:53, SD).

Walt Disney TV Introductions includes the "1954 Introduction" (1:21, SD), and the "1964 Introduction" (1:09, SD).

"The Fred Waring Show (Excerpt)" (30:57, SD) from 1951 includes appearances by Kathryn Beaumont and Sterling Holloway.

Deleted Materials include "Deleted Scene: Pig and Pepper" (3:12, SD), "From Wonderland to Neverland: The Evolution of a Song" (6:49, SD) and "Deleted Storyboard Concept: Alice Daydreams on the Park" (2:01, SD).

Original Song Demos include "Beware the Jabberwock" (2:15, SD), "Everything Has a Useness" (1:18, SD), "So They Say" (1:54, SD), "Beautiful Soup" (1:27, SD), "Dream Caravan" (2:33, SD) and "If You'll Believe in Me" (3:01, SD).

Last up is an extensive Interactive Art Gallery (HD).

With a combination of archival extras and several welcome new features, this 60th Anniversary Edition comes awfully close to definitive.

Review gear:
Panasonic Viera TC-P55VT30 55" Plasma 1080p 3D HDTV
Oppo BDP-93 Universal Network 3D Blu-ray Disc Player
Denon AVR2112CI Integrated Network A/V Surround Receiver
Pioneer SP-BS41-LR Bookshelf Speaker (2)
Pioneer SP-C21 Center Speaker
Pioneer SW-8 Subwoofer

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