My recollections of Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland, which credits Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, and Hamilton Luske as directors but had long been a passion project of producer Walt Disney himself, have betrayed me over the years, but I’m not entirely convinced that this isn’t half the point. Reaching back to a time where the Disney logo in front of the re-release of The Fox and the Hound was more a selling point to me than Tim Burton being the director and writer of Beetlejuice, the boldly colored mania which Disney drew from both Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There seemed no more frivolous, coyly perverse, or visually inventive than anything else Disney had done. At the age of five, when I first encountered Alice in Wonderland on VHS, movies were still largely perceived as chaos to me and what Disney and his team of animators and writers had crafted was no more or less a head-trip than My Stepmother Is an Alien or, for that matter, Cinderella.
Things have changed, obviously, over at the house that Walt built in the 22 years since I last remember seeing Alice in Wonderland. Disney’s blockbusters are now more likely to star Eddie Murphy or Adam Sandler than animated talking animals, teapots, and ferns, though from time to time, thanks to the advent of CGI, these creations do rise to the level of co-star. The animated features that make the most money, garner the most critical attention, and (arguably) represent the height of creativity in popular American cinema are, for one reason or another, credited to Pixar, their co-producers on such modern classics as WALL-E, Ratatouille, The Incredibles, and the formidable Toy Story trilogy. So, the fact that Alice in Wonderland should find its way onto Blu-ray the same year the company that originally produced it released a quasi-live-action 3D remake of the property, to utterly dreadful results, is apt coincidence.
Garishly stylized, overwrought, and far more cartoonish than the original, the remake, as directed by Tim Burton, was meant to focus solely on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but it was obviously more indebted to the Disney marketing department than Carroll’s imaginarium. But it offered structure where the original animated film offered glorious bedlam, strung together only by Alice’s search for a dilatory white rabbit. This much remains the same in both cases and there are a number of other scenes that the two films share, but the way that Disney and his directors manifested the confusion and delirium of Alice’s fever dream is entirely more discombobulating than the sufficient strangeness of Burton’s limp feminist parable.
As the Disney tale begins, Alice (voiced by Kathryn Beaumont) complains about her recitations and books without pictures that her mother has forced her to pay attention to on a beautiful summer’s day. She pets her cat and wanders off, pronouncing that in her kingdom, everything would amount to wondrous nonsense. It’s not long until she spies something…odd: a white, bespectacled rabbit running along the pond’s edge whining, “I’m late! I’m late! For a very important date!” Her chase to catch the rabbit leads her down the rabbit hole, a head-trip free-fall that remains one of the film’s most eye-popping sequences. Landing not far from a small entrance, Alice is informed by a doorknob that she must alter her size to pass through the door; the ensuing yo-yo act between itty-bitty and titanic-size Alice climaxes with her manning a small glass bottle in an ocean of her own tears that leads her beyond the door. Then things start to get weird.
What follows is a chore to summarize in any linear fashion, if only because it’s inevitable that a portion of the seemingly endless parade of startlingly inventive creations would go unnoticed. Indeed, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare enjoy their “very happy unbirthdays” with a drunken mouse during a raucous tea party and Alice does, eventually, meet up with her white rabbit at the court of the Queen of Hearts (Verna Felton), but an overwhelming outpouring of imagination is witnessed between, before, and after these events. Nonsense, as Alice has wished it, towers over narrative, but the young girl’s search for her runaway rabbit—a clear, intelligent allegory for her imagination—offers the film a hint of structure as Alice traverses woods filled with broomdogs, hornducks, oversized singing flowers, and packs of wild momeraths, to say nothing of that toke-friendly caterpillar puffing away on that humongous mushroom.
Of course, Alice in Wonderland has long been the Disney film of choice in the realm of drug cinema, but this radical and ridiculous trip through a bombastically colored otherworld imparts a balanced wisdom that goes beyond bong-rip philosophizing. Solipsism, daydreaming, and imagination fuel ambition and often help detail our own unique perspectives, manifesting in a number of artistic forms, but focus, discipline, and, yes, basic education become a spinal cord for those essential creative facets. Thus, Alice in Wonderland acts as both a bold celebration of youthful imagination and a coy cautionary tale about the dangers of losing one’s self in his or her own mind.
As has been noted, Carroll’s inspiration for many of the tales that made up his fables came from long boat trips he took with the three children of a close friend and colleague who begged him to make up stories to entertain them. It’s a simple, even elegant starting place for Alice’s fruition, one that is far preferable to the onslaught of the largely unfounded readings that the books and film have received over the years, mutating an ode to divine lunacy into a sickbed of political, social, and religious allegories. Like Alice’s mother, a portioning of intellectuals insist on digging for serious meaning to outweigh the outrageous provenance on display in both the animated film and the novels, as if a genuine artist couldn’t create something that wasn’t meant to comment on the world at large
Even if Carroll did have some covert message to impart, it certainly isn’t obvious in the film and is perhaps only evident to those who are readily able to provide the original English meaning of a caucus race. As for Disney’s singularly outlandish work, it certainly has a message, but, like the best of Pixar’s canon, it never obstructs or perverts the generous ingenuity of the film; rather, it informs it in the subtlest of ways. And as the battle to ensure that juvenile entertainment has educational “substance” wages on, one has to ponder if the all-important frivolous buffoonery that one’s childhood is often based on has become collateral damage.
Say what you will about Disney, and plenty could and has been said, but they have consistently put out essential Blu-ray releases over the last few years, and Alice in Wonderland's extraordinary 1080p/AVC-encoded transfer ranks high in their catalogue. The colors, from the luscious crimsons of a singing matriarchal rose to the bright pinks and blues of the Caterpillar's smoke, are proudly presented with crystalline clarity that is visually engaging from the first frame on. And one can't help but be knocked out by the beauty of the evidently hand-drawn frames, down to the brush strokes, the saturated blacks, and precise texturing. If the audio components aren't quite as incredible, they certainly warrant "show-off" status, especially if you consider we're talking about a 60-year-old property that doesn't have the benefits of a lossless mix. Still, the rapturous music and songs mix beautifully with the sweeping beat of the broomdogs, the hooting of the squeezebox owl, and the dialogue, which remains out front and completely clear. This is about as good as Blu-ray releases get.
As per usual with Disney, the cup runneth over, but it's not all exactly essential. The best thing here is the excellent "Through the Keyhole: A Companion's Guide to Wonderland," which is basically a live-action commentary with Lewis Carroll experts, historians, and film buffs pontificating on an innumerable amount of subjects, not least of which is the movie itself. There are a half dozen or so featurettes that cover everything from the project's inception to early pencil and drawing tests to the influence of the film to deleted songs and material that didn't make the cut. Then there are a handful of excerpts and shorts that were indebted to or parodied Alice in Wonderland, including an extended clip from the long defunct Fred Waring Show. It's a lot to take in but most of it registers as enjoyable at the very lest. Trailers, art galleries, a Painting the Roses Red game, a Disney-View feature, and a DVD copy of the film are included as well.
Disney's radical animated classic finds its way into their unimpeachable Blu-ray catalog with all the walking bells and floating whistles.