Alice in Wonderland (1951) Review

What makes Alice in Wonderland memorable from an animation standpoint is free reign. While previous Disney features were focused on fantastical characters, their designs were bounded by reality. The Seven Dwarfs still had to be human. In Wonderland, it’s about the surreal, and the imagination of all involved is spectacular.

While the general anthropomorphic animal characters, the Queen, and Alice still conform to traditional methods, the various creatures that dot the landscape are utterly bizarre. There are birds with pencil faces, dogs with brooms for heads, glasses with legs, mirrors with arms, and any other trippy combination they could come up with to fit with the printed version of Lewis Carroll’s utterly original literature.

There are subtle animation bits too, including the tea party. There’s a drinking game easily crafted from the number of ways Mad Hatter and March Hare pour their favorite liquid. Hare cuts the flow with his ears, Hatter pours down his sleeves in some of the more abstract means of filling a glass.

Hatter and Hare have more character than just about anything else in the film, Wonderland moving at an extraordinary pace and a brisk 75-minutes. Alice’s world just sort of happens as the White Rabbit prances around the screen after a brief musical interlude, and we’re off. The narrative structure is roughly nill, and a time out for the Walrus/Carpenter story is almost entirely a waste of time, short of the lesson it tries to teach Alice.

Wonderland is far from a “bad” film; it’s a classic, but on the lower end of Walt’s grand achievements. There’s enough marvelous material here to satisfy, and the animation as the playing cards perform a full-on dance number is striking. The film leaves you wanting more, and in a way that’s the best compliment that it can get, and on the other side, it feels like a wasted chance to do something even grander.

Movie ★★★★☆ 

As with any of Disney’s classic animated efforts, Alice in Wonderland has been restored with a sparkle. DNR has been expertly employed to carefully and precisely remove the grain structure in an effort to preserve the animation cells. The result is nothing but clarity and precision, pencil marks easily identifiable and the backgrounds rich with paint strokes.

Colors are additionally saturated to match what is assumed to be their natural vibrancy. Alice’s blue dress is backed by intense primaries elsewhere, matched only in boldness by the Red Queen’s, well, redness. The singing flowers are gorgeous in their beauty and fullness. There is such a variety of shades on display, Wonderland graced with contrasting colors that never mesh or blend.

Damage is eliminated from the frame entirely, not a speck or a scratch to the be had. That is of course consistent with everything else the studio has released, Disney setting an absurdly high standard for themselves. Sharpness never wanders or loses its touch unless by design. The underwater sequence with the oysters is intentionally diffused by design.

Wandering through the forests, Alice walks into areas of deep, rich blacks. Their depth and power is as impressive as anything else. There are no compression issues to take note of, the AVC encode handling all scenes of rapidly progressing action without fault.

Video ★★★★★ 

The Mad Hatter has a stand-out voice in this DTS-HD mix, and that’s not entirely for the better. Ed Wynn’s comic stylings caught the ear of Walt Disney, who then told the sound recorders to use his adlibs. The problem was background noise since the session wasn’t official, and the department had to eliminate unwanted audio. The result is evident to this day, the fidelity not quite as crisp for the Hatter as any other character.

While the age is present in terms of range, the track is free from any distortion or static. Clarity is sublime here too. Songs carry a richness to them they never had before, aided by a brilliant surround bleed that sounds like it always sat there. There are no overly extravagant uses of the stereo channels or surrounds. Dialogue stays put, and the stereos pull the heaviest weight for the music.

The subwoofer is home to limited use, most of the songs too light to need it and the action too passe to require any thumps. It serves only the Red Queen as she falls down, producing an exaggerated, somewhat loose bump to make her girth all the more notable.

Audio ★★★★☆ 

A pop-up feature titled Through the Keyhole is loaded with interviews and is the highlight of the extras, far better than any typical commentary. Some brief reference footage and a pencil test barely run more than a minute combined, with the exception of the Kathryn Beaumont introductions. A Walt Disney intro to what must have been a TV showing of the film is included too. A game for the kids deals with painting the roses. The film can also be watched with art on the sides of the 4×3 frame to fill in the negative space, and while the art itself is superb, it’s more of a distraction.

Eleven additional features are pulled from the DVD, ranging from featurettes, Mickey Mouse shorts, trailers, and an hour long TV special. All relate to Wonderland in some way.

Extras ★★★★☆ 

Note: All of these screens come from the Through the Keyhole feature as Media Player Classic refused to play the film by itself. There are very few frames which are not presenting additional information, although the image quality itself is identical.