Walt Disney had his eye on Alice In Wonderland almost from the start of his career. He was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice books at a young age, and some of his earliest films—1920s silent shorts later dubbed the “Alice Comedies”—follow a live-action girl through a series of comically threatening animated worlds populated by wondrous creatures that look like early versions of the cartoon characters Disney and creative partner Ub Iwerks made famous a few years later. By the time Disney looped back around to making a proper adaptation of Alice, he and his studio had become famous for making animated features that didn’t bear that much resemblance to Carroll’s books, favoring storybook beauty and straightforward narratives—Fantasia aside—over the dreamy reality-bending and linguistic games that made Carroll famous. From the beginning, a Disney Alice In Wonderland seemed destined to get pulled in two directions at once.
This proved to be an underestimation. Three directors got credit for Alice, along with many other animators and writers. That isn’t unusual for a Disney animated feature, of course, but few feel as segmented as Alice In Wonderland, whose individual episodes seldom match each other in look or tone. In some respects, the film is just being true to Carroll, whose books followed dream logic from one strange chapter to the next. And the best of Alice In Wonderland’s episodes stay truer still, like a visit to a caterpillar who exhales words as hookah smoke, and a manic tea party hosted by a Mad Hatter with the distinctive voice of character actor Ed Wynn. What’s more, the animators respond to Carroll’s spirit by pushing the limits of what fit into a Disney film, throwing in casually surreal flower gardens and creating wondrous backgrounds that broke with house style in favor of the more stylized animation and lush color palettes coming into vogue.
Still, for the same reason Alice In Wonderland caught on with the midnight-movie crowd, it never inspired the affection that other Disney classics did. Little besides an endless stream of ditties—only a few of them memorable—carries the film from one scene to the next. For anyone not just coasting along with the visuals, it can start to feel like a movie to be gotten through more than enjoyed. And while Kathryn Beaumont voices Alice with delightfully crisp propriety, the perpetually annoyed character never becomes particularly endearing. She’s a girl with the imagination to dream a world of nothing but “nonsense,” but too timid to enjoy it. But at least in that, Carroll might recognize her as his own creation, and as a creation of his age, whatever liberties the film around her takes with the source material.
Key features: The Blu-ray edition improves substantially on previous versions both in the film’s look—which, consistent with other Disney Blu-ray transfers, is stunningly rich—and by the addition of Through The Keyhole: A Companion’s Guide To Wonderland, a detailed (though Disney-friendly) account of the film’s history.