DirectorNorman Z. McLeod
Release Date(s)1933 (May 19, 2020)
Studio(s)Paramount Pictures/Universal Pictures (Kino Lorber Studio Classics)
- Film/Program Grade: B-
- Video Grade: C+
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C+
Starring a who’s who of talent from the 1930s, the pre-Code peculiarity Alice in Wonderland bombed upon its initial theatrical run. Though critics didn’t like it, many blamed the fragmented story and lack of being able to make out who was who in the cast as to why the film failed. Today, it’s seen as an interesting precursor to Disney’s animated classic, which would appear nearly twenty years later and eventually become the most well-known adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s unorthodox series of children’s tales.
Based upon Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, the story concerns the young and curious Alice. After falling asleep, she steps through a mirror and finds herself in a land of odd characters and nonsensical activities. Played wonderfully by newcomer Charlotte Henry, the film features a cadre of acting talent, almost all of whom are buried under heavy make-up prosthetics and costumes. Among them are Cary Grant, Richard Arlen, Sterling Holloway, W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, Edna May Oliver, Roscoe Karns, Jack Oakie, Edward Everett Horton, Mae Marsh, Charlie Ruggles, May Robson, Ned Sparks, and young Billy Barty.
The film’s lack of a structure was confounding to critics and audiences, but it perfectly conveys the insanity of dreams and nightmares wherein events play out in anarchic fashion; landscapes change sporadically, characters come and go on a whim, and events never connect as random thoughts bleed together. Besides that are the ghastly make-up effects (ghastly meaning effective and terrifying) and the variety of special effects. Not all hold up well, but for their time, they’re remarkable. At a brisk 76 minutes, Alice in Wonderland is a brief foray into experimental filmmaking on a major studio’s dime. It wasn’t appreciated, but is now seen as a filmic curiosity.
Kino Lorber brings Alice in Wonderland to Blu-ray for the first time utilizing the same transfer used for the film’s DVD release in 2010. It’s an unfortunately soft presentation. Though it appears organic with authentic grain reproduction, lines run through the frame, the image bounces constantly, and there are moments of obvious ghosting. Delineation is good, though detail often suffers. The animated sequence involving the walrus and the carpenter looks better than the rest of the material, but features a lot of the same qualities as the live action material.
The audio is presented in English 2.0 mono DTS-HD with optional subtitles in English. It fares much better as it’s clean and clear, though not a sonic powerhouse. Dialogue exchanges are clear and discernable, the score has decent push, and sound effects have little impact. A very mild hiss is present, but there are no instances of crackle, distortion, or dropouts.
The following extras are also included:
- Audio Commentary with Lee Gambin
- Theatrical Trailer (SD – 2:34)
- The Adventures of Tom Sawyer Trailer (HD – 2:16)
- Jack the Giant Killer Trailer (HD – 3:20)
- The Magic Sword Trailer (HD – 2:42)
Lee Gambin’s audio commentary delves mightily into the history of the film, going over all of the actors and various facets of the film’s story and thematic material as it happens on screen. The track is quite informative and runs the entirety of the picture as a pleasant and edifying aural guide. Also included is the film’s theatrical trailer, as well as trailers for other Kino Lorber releases. It’s worth noting that the German Koch Media DVD release includes the 1915 version of the film and a still gallery as extras, neither of which are featured here.
Though the film could use a fresh restoration from whatever elements survive, Alice in Wonderland is a nightmarish but enjoyable oddity. Pre-dating The Wizard of Oz, it proved that fantasy filmmaking could be achieved and taken seriously in the right hands. Kino Lorber’s Blu-ray release is a welcome addition to an self-respecting Lewis Carroll fan’s film library.
– Tim Salmons