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CAPSULE: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1986)

DIRECTED BY: Barry Letts

FEATURING: Kate Dorning

PLOT: A faithful adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s children’s book about the girl who falls down the rabbit hole, with musical numbers.

Still from Alice in Wonderland (1986)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We’ve watched so many variations of Alice aimed at adults—from ‘s dreamlike 1966 version to ‘s stop-motion nightmare interpretation—that seeing an authentic retelling of this Victorian fairy tale aimed at kids is almost a shock to the system. It serves as a reminder that, as much as Surrealists love to appropriate Carroll for their own nefarious ends, the prototypical “Alice” is kiddie fare, not entertainment for grown up weirdophiles.

COMMENTS: With so many competing interpretations of Alice in Wonderland out there, it’s difficult to find a compelling reason to recommend this straightforward adaptation that originally aired as four separate episodes on British television. On the plus side, it is one of the most accurate filmed versions of the story, staying true to Lewis Carroll’s original dialogue and neither omitting any major episodes nor (as is often done) folding in popular incidents and/or characters from the Wonderland sequel “Through the Looking Glass.” This production attempts to breathe new life into the old story by setting some of Carroll’s nonsense poems to music; but, although the classical-styled compositions are competently rendered, they’re hardly memorable and, like much of the show, feel a little stodgy. Each episode is framed by a sepia-toned introduction featuring Carroll at a picnic making up the story for the historical Alice and her sisters; this ploy is fairly neutral, though some may appreciate the attention to the backstory. Cast as Alice, Kate Dorning is appropriately wide-eyed, but it’s hard to ignore the fact that she’s not a little girl. I can’t find the actress’ date of birth, but she is clearly at least in her teens here, and I wouldn’t be shocked to learn she had already entered her second decade when she played the role. Her performance sometimes reminds me of those children’s shows where adults play childlike characters and talk directly to the camera, which brings us to the main issue with this production: the children’s’ TV-show budget. Although I believe the filmmakers did the best they could with the money they had available, there is inevitably a blasé “good enough for kids” sort of vibe to the proceedings. The presence of the green screen is often frightfully obvious: Alice’s stiff tumble down the rabbit hole and the Cheshire cat’s dissolve to a smile are particularly cringe-inducing. The animal characters (White Rabbit, Dodo, Frog and Fish footman, etc.) wear masks that, while well designed, are stiff and rubbery. A few of the setups do manage to find ways around the budgetary limitations, as when the poem/song “Father William” is dramatized as a shadow play performed by acrobats. In general, however, the filmmakers don’t have the means to recreate Wonderland, and they are too dedicated to literally showing actual hookah-smoking caterpillars perched on toadstools to devise a stylized rendition that could come in under budget. If you can overlook the unspecial effects, and tolerate the songs, this Alice is worthwhile as an authentic rendition of the text that will probably hold the interest of younger children. Of course, Disney’s animated offering, while less accurate, is far more enchanting for youngsters, who aren’t interested in scholarly fidelity to the text anyway. It almost seems that the BBC felt obligated to produce a straightforward, canonical Alice to atone for the fact that Jonathan Miller’s experimental 1966 adaptation was their lone take on this national classic. This rendition is more respectable, but less magical; and that hardly seems in the spirit of Lewis Carroll.

Director Barry Letts and producer Terrance Dicks were mainly known for their involvement with “Dr. Who,” and several actors from the Who troupe show up here. In fact, a survey of the blogosphere suggests this release may garner as much attention from curious “Who” fans as from “Alice” devotees.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

 “Pip Donaghy makes for a weird Mad Hatter, but really, there shouldn’t be any other kind. Despite the fact that it’s dated and a bit creaky in terms of its production values, this adaptation of Alice In Wonderland generally works quite well.”–Ian Jane, DVD Talk (DVD)

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