January 18, 2013

Reviewing the Netflix Disney Films: Alice in Wonderland

Alice Wonderland Disney animated Cheshire cat grin
With several great Disney classics readily available to stream on Netflix, there's no better time to take another look at these amazing films. Today Mouse Troop turns its attention to one of the most problematic and interesting films ever to come out of Walt Disney Studios. It has a castle, but no princess, no love story, no battles, no time, no way (except the Queen's way), no mustard in the watch, no oysters for the Carpenter and no tea (ever) for Alice.

Few would deny that Disney’s animated Alice in Wonderland fails on a few levels. It lacks emotion, it’s episodic, the story has no goal…

And yet…
Alice Wonderland Disney animated courtroom cards
It’s my favorite Disney film. I first saw it on Wonderful World of Color way back during my 1960's childhood (when a chance to see Disney animation was a rare treat), and it haunted my dreams. I think small children can relate to Alice’s fear of being lost, and if you experience this film at a young age, the movie retains a deep-rooted sense of peril that’s lost on those who initially view it as an adult.

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Time has been kind to this movie: Watching it today, all the narrative problems still exist, but the film amazes, dazzles and completely succeeds at conjuring a cohesive, unforgettable world unlike anything else in the history of cinema.
Alice Wonderland Disney animated review White Rabbit
Visually, it’s a masterpiece that looks fresher and more daring with each passing decade. It playfully weaves nearly two dozen songs—many of them mere fragments—into its colorful soundtrack. Neither sappy nor preachy, it sticks fairly close to the book’s storyline. It substitutes visual puns for Lewis Carroll’s wordplay, and mostly succeeds; Alice is a genuinely funny movie.
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Poor, poor Alice -- Possibly the best moment in the film.
And, after all the criticism fired at the movie when it debuted in the fifties, no other studio has created a more successful adaptation. I rather liked the TV movie a few years back featuring Martin Short, Christopher Lloyd, Gene Wilder and Peter Ustinov (it’s on Netflix), but it had its own share of pacing problems and took just as many liberties with the book. Tim Burton's more recent take on Wonderland is great fun, but (despite its misleading title) it's a sequel to the Carroll stories.
Alice Wonderland Disney animated review Walrus Carpenter
They don't advance the plot at all, but -- What a great pair of scoundrels!
Let’s look at the negatives of Disney’s version: The ever-annoyed Alice often seems bratty and arrogant, and she learns absolutely nothing from the adventure. The journey has no compelling goal. The fragmented plot is episodic to a ridiculous extreme: whole sequences can be removed without making any noticeable difference (as happened on its initial TV airings). The music, while generally terrific, frequently becomes brash and intrusive, particularly when it’s used to emphasize gags.
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So, what does the movie offer to make it worthwhile? Sheer, incredible visual wonderment. Fantastic backgrounds and amazing use of light and color from the minds of Mary Blair and Claude Coats. Memorable character designs. Terrific animation. Wonderful voice work.

Plus, it contains The Awesome Sequence: one long, perfect chain of scenes—The Cheshire Cat, The Tea Party and Tulgey Wood—that I’d rate as one of the most brilliant twenty minutes of film in Disney’s history. Here the movie shines with ingenius designs, great dialogue and pacing, big laughs, craziest moments and—for once—Alice displaying some genuine concern about being lost in Weirdsville.
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During the song "Very Good Advice," I love the fact that the forest animals don’t help Alice (as forest animals would do in a typical Disney scenario); they simply sob themselves into non-existence. It's an unexpected and unique moment. If only the whole film clicked on the level of these scenes…

The Cheshire Cat, of course, is this movie’s big gift to pop culture. Creepy, funny, mysterious and odd, he turns out to be a hilarious S.O.B. who sets Alice up for disaster for his own amusement.
Alice Wonderland Disney animated review Cheshire cat jerk
He's one of my favorite Disney characters, but -- seriously -- what a jerk!
And, as a bonus, this movie inspired one of the best dark rides in any Disney park.
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So here’s a toast to Alice in Wonderland, the problem movie that continues to delight. Flaws and all, it deserves to be called a classic.

This review is an update of a post that originally ran in 2010 on our previous site, Astonished Walrus.

3 comments:

  1. Rich, I haven't watched this in YEARS. And I think that might have been the first time I saw it and then I wrote a short story on it. I do love that Rabbit but the whole movie was just SO strange for me. Perhaps, I'll give it a whirl. I'm not sure if the husband has seen it.

    Love that you are doing these Netflix features. We were logged in there last Friday and I was like hey, Rich would be so impressed! ;)

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    1. Thanks! :) Netflix really is a bargain, but I started the posts about the service because -- considering the money they just spent for Disney films -- they sure don't make it easy to find all the titles!

      Alice is such an odd film, but full of great scenes. When they originally aired it on TV, Disney actually cut out Tweedle Dum & Dee, The Walrus & the Carpenter, The White Rabbit's House, and the Cheshire Cat's first scene...and it made no difference to the plot! The flip side is that, since the film's storyline doesn't matter much, it's a very re-watchable film that's easy to "pick up and put down" like a beautifully drawn comic book full of short stories.

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  2. Despite it's problems, I still love this movie too. Great review!

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