PLOT: An unseen narrator explains that an exhibition of seven related paintings from the fictional artist Fredéric Tonnerre caused a scandal in the 19th century and were removed from public view. We are then introduced to the Collector, who owns six of the seven paintings—one of them has been stolen, he explains, leaving the story told through the artwork incomplete. Using live actors to recreate the canvases, the Collector walks through the paintings and constructs a bizarre interpretation of their esoteric meaning.
Raoul Ruiz is credited with more than 100 films in a career that lasted from 1964 until his death in 2011.
Ruiz was originally hired by a French television channel to produce a documentary on writer/painter Pierre Klossowski. The project morphed into this fictional story that adapts themes and plots from several of Klossowski’s works, especially “La Judith de Frédéric Tonnerre” and “Baphomet.”
Many of the figurants in the tableaux vivants were writers and staff from the influential journal “Cahiers du Cinema.” Future film star Jean Reno, in his first screen appearance, is also among those posing.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: Obviously, one of the tableaux vivants—the three dimensional recreations of Tonnerre’s paintings featuring motionless, silent actors. From Diana and the hunt to Knights Templar playing chess, these are (perhaps) inexplicable scenes which, the narrator explains, “play[s] carefully on our curiosity as spectators who arrived too late.” The strangest of all is the tableau of a young man stripped to the waist with a noose around his neck, surrounded by men, one holding a cross, others in turbans and brandishing daggers, and three of whom are conspicuously pointing at objects within the scene. Hanging above them is a suspended mask.
THREE WEIRD THINGS: The hanged youth; whispering narrator; Knights Templar of Baphomet
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Performed with art house restraint in an impishly surreal spirit, this labyrinthine, postmodern meditation on art criticism plays like a Peter Greenaway movie done in the style of Last Year at Marienbad, adapted from a lost Jorge Luis Borges story.
With the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (directed by Rian Johnson), it appears that Saint Nicholas has appeased a considerable sector ofmovie goers in 2017, except for the formula-craving fanatics who were preferring something akin to the pedestrian Rogue One. Johnson’s The Last Jedi, in declining to subscribe to expectations of franchise assembly line lovers, has refreshingly provoked butthurt nostalgists, and revealed what a lot of people already knew: the wrongheadedness of fandom, seen at its silliest and most cult-like in petitions to remove the film from “the canon” and Twitter threats cast at the director.
Of course, the jolly old elf has delivered us a few genuine clunkers over the last seventeen hundred years, among the most notorious being the 1978 “Star Wars Holiday Special” (directed by Steve Binder, best known for the 1968 ‘Elvis Comeback Special”). It’s a made-for-television abomination that George Lucas and company have desperately tried to keep buried, but like bed bugs at night—the damn thing just wouldn’t go away. It’s a good thing too; ’tis the perfect present for infantile palettes. Since its release, “The Star Wars Holiday Special” keeps cropping up in bootleg copies. The late Carrie Fisher even attempted to deny its existence and dismissed it as an urban legend, which only fanned the flames of demand. Despite her protestations, there she is, along with many of the original cast.
Not even the endurance tests of The Ewok Adventure, Howard the Duck, Willow (1988), or The Phantom Menace (1999) can prepare one for the cringe-inducing ineptitude of the “Holiday Special.” After the 1977 film took the world by surprise, Lucas, knowing that the Empire wouldn’t be striking back for another two years and fearful that audiences had short term memories, unwisely agreed to CBS’ request for a holiday variety show, utilizing original cast members and footage spliced in from A New Hope (although it wasn’t called that at the time). As hard as it may be for some to fathom, this is Star Wars on the level of the most unwatchable Z-movie productions. Wretched in unparalleled proportions, its too embarrassing to be worthy of a genuine laugh.
Fleeing an imperial starship, Han Solo and Chewbacca jump into hyperspace so they can arrive in time for a Wookie holiday called “Life Day,” because Malla (Mrs. Chewie) is pining for her hubby back on the home planet (represented by a shitty drawing of a house straight out of “Swiss Family Robinson” meets “The Jetsons”). Being a stay-at-home mom, Malla wears an apron as she watches a TV program with Harvey Korman in drag as a kind of intergalactic Julia Childs octopus teaching us how to cook a cake: “Beat, stir, whip, beat, stir, whip.” It might have been amusing at a quarter of its length.
What is “Life Day?” Although the entire special is about this Wookie holiday, who the hell knows what it’s about? Apparently, it’s close enough to Christmas and/or Thanksgiving to warrant this special. Malla, anxious for Chewie to get his ass home for the holidays, calls a Luke Skywalker adorned in eyeliner. Of course, Malla just oinks. Fortunately, Luke speaks oink and assures her that her Wookie man meat will be home soon.
Han, Luke, and Leia are minor characters, with the special focused on Chewbacca’s family. Itchy (Chewie’s dad) is an argument for euthanasia. Lumpy, the Wookie rugrat, watches circus holograms while stoned out of his gourd on opium, then runs around the hut playing with a toy storm trooper spaceship. Itchy plays with it too. Gramps doesn’t seem to like Lumpy; but Luke never shows up to translate, so it’s anybody’s guess.
Art Carney stops by as Trader Saundan. He comes from Planet C. We can only assume there’s a planet A & B. Art brings presents; so, perhaps he’s a bit like Santa. He gives Malla a hologram of Jefferson Starship (this is in-between the band’s cool Jefferson Airplane phase and their fingernails-down-a-chalkboard Starship phase, although the band is already devolving here). Itchy receives a hologram sex doll of Diahann Carroll as the Swan Woman (she has a silver thingamajig on her head, but at least she sings better than Starship). Disconcertingly, with one had on his crutch and the other on a remote control, Itchy clearly gets aroused (he oinks a lot). With all the maudlin “Leave it to Beaver”-style Wookie mugging, it’s an uncomfortable mix.
Bea Arthur, as Ackema, the bitchy cantina owner, is essentially a dancing Maude in space. The rest is a mix of cheap animation (which marks the first appearance of Boba Fett), a couple of storm troopers, some footage of Darth Vader, and a WTF finale of red robed Wookies in the sky, as Fisher sings execrable lyrics to John Williams’ Star Wars theme while Han coos over her. This is easily the weirdest entry from the Star Wars universe, but this is a case of weird being something best avoided. Think of it as Star Wars doused in sentimental maple syrup mixed with buttermilk. Lucas’ name is nowhere to be found in the credits, and he has consistently maintained that he had nothing to do with the special. He doth protest too much, methinks.
Throughout the 1970s, the rock band KISS served as a kind of symbol for my own paradoxical, f’ed-up world. On Sundays, we frequently heard diatribes against the band spewed from the pulpit. “Knights in Satan’s Service,” the preacher warned, again and again and again. Believe me: Gene “The Demon” Simmons, with his long wiggling tongue and blood-drinking candids (from various albums) inspired countless, tongue-speaking “the Holy Ghost has taken over the service” and paranoid “Jesus is coming again soon” frenzied Sunday night services that usually dragged on past midnight, which left us dragging through Monday morning classes.
At school, it was the exact opposite. My parents, for reasons I still cannot fathom, moved us from Indianapolis to a small, gun-toting Klan county populated by trailer parks, farms (which smelled of cow fertilizer for six months out of the year), and mini-suburbs. To many of the kids from this hayseed community, Peter, Paul, Gene, and Ace were akin to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and if you were foolish enough to criticize the sacred prophets of rock and roll, be prepared for an ass whuppin’. You weren’t even safe breathing negatives about KISS in front of the white trash girls, because they had become zealous converts, one and all, with Peter’s “Beth, I hear you calling,” and would promptly order their boyfriends to beat the holy shit out of you from here to Sunday. As stupid as I was in my teens, I was still smart enough to keep my mouth shut on the subject of KISS. Actually, I was never sure what all the fuss was about either way. Their songs were harmless trifles and their stage act wasn’t much different than the average Vincent Price movie. My younger brother, on the other hand, got caught up in the KISS phenomenon and actually risked buying two of their LPs. Unfortunately for him, he was eventually caught in possession of “Hotter than Hell” and “KISS Alive.” Needless to say, those records were offered up to an angry Jehovah in the sacred church parking lot bonfire shortly before Sunday night service (I can still hear those echoes of the Burgermeister Meisterburger laughing “the children of Somberville will never play with toys again” as he lit the torch).
Imagine my surprise then when, a few years later, I caught Kiss Meets the Phantom of the Park (1978) at a friend’s house (the church folk never found out). My confusion over the KISS brouhaha magnified, only (perhaps) surpassed by Gene becoming a kind of constipated Pat Boone-type late in life.
“We have tried to create a kind of ‘nether world’ that would seem timeless. A strange place that would be uncomfortably familiar.”–Dave Borthwick
DIRECTED BY: Dave Borthwick
FEATURING: Nick Upton, Deborah Collard
PLOT: When wasp-guts accidentally fall into a jar of artificial sperm, the resultant baby is a fetus-like boy about the size of a thumb. While Tom is still a pre-verbal toddler, men in black suits kidnap him from his poor but loving home and take him to their “Laboratorium” for study. Escaping with the help of a tiny dragon-like creature, Tom stumbles upon to other miniature people who live in a state of eternal war against the “giants,” before reuniting with his father.
The movie’s plot is suggested by the fairy tale “Tom Thumb,” the oldest surviving English folktale, but beyond the presence of a tiny child there are few similarities to the ancient legend.
The movie was originally commissioned by the BBC as a ten-minute short to be shown at Christmastime, but they rejected the end product for being too dark. The station changed its mind after the short became an award-winning hit on the festival circuit, and co-funded this one-hour feature version of the story.
Tom Thumb was also partly funded by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones, who also wrote the theme song.
Besides stop-motion animation, Tom Thumb uses a technique called “pixilation,” which is basically the same idea but with live actors instead of models. Director Borthwick found that professional actors lacked the patience to sit still for the hours sometimes required for shots where humans interacted with puppets, so he used animators and technical personnel in the main roles instead (star Nick Upton is a primarily an animator specializing in pixilation).
After debuting on television, Tom Thumb toured the film festival circuit and even booked theatrical dates in the U.S., paired with the excellent and bizarre short “Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life.”
INDELIBLE IMAGE: There’s so much to choose from—particularly the surrealistic menagerie of disembodied body parts and mix-and-match homunculi from the Laboratorium—that the wilder images cancel each other out. In fact, it’s the faces of our two leads—the innocent, half-formed clay features of Tom and the greasy, beaming mug of his proud working-class dad—that stick in the mind. Indeed, for the poster and DVD cover images, the producers used such of scene of the two principal characters posing together (it’s a promotional still of a domestic scene that does not actually occur in the movie).
THREE WEIRD THINGS: Flying syringe insect; crucified Santa; halo of vermin
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: The tone of this fairy tale is hard to explain: equal parts silent slapstick, dystopian futurism, and Svankmajerian surrealism, delivered through twitchy visuals that makes it play like a particularly restless dream. There is an unexpected sweetness to the concoction that helps it go down more smoothly than you might expect, but it still leaves a residue of nightmare behind.
Original trailer for The Secret Adventures of Tom Thumb
FEATURING: Alane Delhaye, Bernard Pruvost, Philippe Jore, Lucy Caron
PLOT: A big city detective with facial tic disorder comes to a remote French beach village to investigate a bizarre double murder: parts of the victims were found inside the bodies of cows.
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Bruno Dumont’s sprawling (206 minute) longform Gallic mystery is quirky and ominous in about equal measure, with an ambiguous non-conclusion that adds to the weirdness while also making the entire enterprise feel strangely incomplete.
COMMENTS: Because of its quirky dark humor and strange-outsider-in-a-stranger-town mystery plot, L’il Quinquin almost always dubbed “the French ‘Twin Peaks.'” Indeed, it shares many of that series’ strengths and weaknesses: absurd, dark humor; meandering subplots that can become more interesting than the main thread; fascinating rural eccentrics; a hint of the supernatural; and an unsatisfactory resolution.
That last part bears keeping in mind. Although L’il Quinquin is presented as a mystery, beginning with the macabre discovery of human body parts inside of cows, the murders are, most frustratingly, not solved at the end. This fact is in accord with the director’s wishes—he presents a world where evil is allowed to triumph, even to the extent of remaining anonymous—but, after such an amazing buildup, the anticlimax inevitably leaves a bit of an unpleasant aftertaste.
That disappointment won’t arrive until the very end, however, and there is much to savor up until then. We’ll start with the performance of Bernard Pruvost as Commandant Van der Weyden, a detective who looks like Albert Einstein with uncontrollable facial tics—his expression changes an average of two times per second. Pruvost projects a weird sort of competence, and serves as the film’s disapproving moral center, but shares the limelight with Alane Delhaye as the titular Quinquin, a mischievous “bad kid” who absorbs the town’s unreflective racism, but is redeemed by his innocence and his genuine love for a neighbor girl (Lucy Caron, whose penetrating stare recalls the blank intensity of Kara Hayward in Moonrise Kingdom). There’s also an African Muslim boy who snaps when a popular white girl rejects him; a beautiful and talented young chanteuse who seems bound for the big city; Carpentier, Van der Weyden’s dim and nearly toothless second-in-command; Quinquin’s uncle, a speechless, nearly catatonic wreck just back from the institution, given to wandering around in circles; and dozens of other weirdos in brief bits (like the developmentally-disabled English man who throws dishes in a restaurant while the detective is giving a status report to his superior officer). Offbeat comic touches, often quite absurd, break up the serious dramatic sections: a pair of priests preside over an awkward funeral and giggle inappropriately; Quinquin is bedeviled by a costumed younger boy calling himself “Speedyman!” who shows up on his doorstep without explanation; a car careens down the street on two wheels. But in the midst of all this everyday madness, things grow ever darker, as secrets are uncovered and more and more bodies are found, leading the detective to his eventual, apparently final, conclusion: “l’enfer, ici” (“this is Hell, here”).
But for all L’il Quinquin‘s assets, it ends on little more than that involuntary eyebrow shrug by our detached detective. I appreciate an ambiguous ending, when well done, but the idea of a mystery that is never resolved, yet is wrapped up in a way that the audience will find emotionally satisfying, remains cinema’s elusive white whale.
Exclusively for Netflix, Pee-wee Herman (Paul Reubens) returns with his first feature in 28 years. Pee-wee’s Big Holiday (2016) could be (and has been in some quarters) dismissed as “Pee-wee’s Next Big Adventure.” Is it as original as that Tim Burton-helmed Pee-wee’s Big Adventure(1985)? No, but it’s a welcome return. Actually, Pee-wee has weathered pop culture better than Burton, who lost his mojo in the 90s.
There are a few pleasant surprises here, such as not-so-subtle homage to Russ Meyer‘s Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965). Still, mostly Reubens plays it safe, giving us exactly what we expect of him.
Pee-wee Herman comes from a very small cinematic tradition of the “creepy man-child,” which Harry Langdon introduced in the silent era. Primarily under the direction of Harry Edwards and Frank Capra, Langdon initially kept his character’s more disturbingly childlike qualities in check. However, eager to expand that characterization, Langdon eventually let loose—which quickly destroyed his career, even if the results were artistically satisfying.
Stan Laurel, very much influenced by Langdon, learned from his mentor’s populist misstep and kept the baby-face half of Laurel and Hardy forever innocent. Jacques Tati, also influenced by Langdon, had more freedom with a European audience. In 1979, Steve Martin introduced his take on the naughty child. However, after a few experiments that unfortunately failed at the American box office, Martin took the safer route of growing up, which eventually rendered his body of work both disappointing and inconsequential. Reuben’s Pee-wee Herman character first emerged around the same time as Martin’s. After Burton and Rubens produced the masterpiece Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, 1988’s Big Top Pee Wee was a disaster. This flop hardly mattered due to Reuben’s award winning “Pee Wee’s Playhouse” TV show (which earned 15 Emmys in 5 years). Reubens was undoubtedly the most original small screen personality since Ernie Kovacs.
Of course, we all know about Pee-wee’s rapid rise and fall, and television has been all the more bankrupt since its departure in 1991. That is not to say there is not good or even imaginative TV programming, but there is little with the aesthetic quality of Reubens.
At 63 years old, Reubens had his face digitally enhanced for Big Holiday, in order to retain that child-like mask (Mary Pickford did not have 21st century technology and had to give up on her little girl lost act at the age of 34). Still, although treading narrative familiar ground, Reubens retains the character’s edge in this belated return. There is even a latent same-sex attraction undercurrent between Pee-wee and Joe Manganiello (it’s so latent, kids will not be privy to it).
Pee-Wee is still very much a fixture in a surreal suburbia—as usual, he is the only one who realizes just how off-kilter the ‘burbs are—when he meets Joe. Sharing a love for root beer barrel candy, Joe and Pee-wee hit it off. Joe, soon to have a birthday party in New York, invites Pee-wee, encouraging the suburban Peter Pan to step outside of his G.O.P. mecca of Fairville and “live a little.” Reubens is savvy enough to poke fun of the retreaded plot: “I don’t want to go anywhere or try anything new.” He could be Fairville’s poster child for Donald Trump’s desire to “Make ‘Murica Grate Again,” (AKA, let’s return to the oppressive past), except that Pee-wee does have a tad bit of the eternal bad boy Reubens under his skin. Of course Pee-wee heads to the Big Apple, embarking on his next big adventure as if 1985 was just a few days ago.
Between a hexagon of biker outlaw udders (Alia Shawkat, as one of the trio, shines and has genuine chemistry with her co-star) and nine man-meat craving farm girls who have used a tad too much butter on the grits, Pee-wee makes it clear that he is not interested in the fairer sex “that way.” With all those pheromones, Pee-wee runs for New York cover and Joe’s ripped, saving arms. Of course, there are some mildly weird diversions along the way that never get quite phantasmagorical enough. A traveling snake oil salesman who literally takes hitchhiking Pee-Wee to a snake farm, a Chitty Chitty Bang Bang flying car (occupied by Diane Sallinger), an Amish village of balloon deflators ( an amusingly extended gag), and an odd musical number all add up to subdued eccentricity, but never on the natural scales of David Lynch or the late Tim Burton.
Still, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday is a charmer that may lead to Reuben’s reviving the character and taking him into more innovative terrain.
2013-2105’s “Hannibal” was both aesthetically and dramatically superior to any of the Hannibal Lecter character’s films, including the overrated Silence Of The Lambs, but audiences, having understandably overdosed on wretched sequels and prequels, never gave this television exercise in noir surrealism a chance [↩]
Sallinger is a veteran Reubens co-conspirator, having starred with him in both Batman Returns and Pee-wee’s Big Adventure [↩]
FEATURING: Ian Ziering, Cassie Scerbo, Jaason Simmons, Tara Reid
PLOT: Global warming causes shark migrations and storms with heavy winds that pick up angry sharks and hurl them through the streets of L.A.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: C’mon… Sharknado? Really? When you’ve got the weird movie review sites scoffing at the ridiculousness of your premise, you know your movie has issues.
COMMENTS: There have been high concept movies before, but Sharknado has streamlined the process by inventing a title that’s so high concept it makes the rest of the movie superfluous. In case you missed the point of the clever portmanteau, the movie is about a tornado that contains sharks. The problem here for the filmmakers that you really can’t fit more than five, ten minutes at most of actual sharknado footage into your movie, and you have an obligation to fill out the rest of the running time with a plot that doesn’t suck. Not to spoil Sharknado, but they can’t. In Mega Python vs. Gatoroid, Mary Lambert at least included a Tiffany/Debbi Gibson rivalry subplot (culminating in an old-fashioned hair-pulling catfight that actually one-upped the giant reptiles). Here, we only get a lame, barely realized domestic drama to fill in the stretches between flying shark attacks. The two male leads are bland. Alleged protagonist “Fin” (groan) acts like a self-sacrificing hero who values his family’s safety above his own life, but his ex-wife and daughter keep insisting that he’s a selfish jerk. It’s like they’re reading their lines from a different draft of the script. Fin’s surfin’ sidekick, “Baz,” is Tasmanian, and that’s all there is to say about his character. Tara Reid’s only purpose in the story is to be miffed and bitchy—she doesn’t even kill a single shark—and she looks bored in an underwritten role that will do nothing to get her stalled acting career back on track. Other than beach barfly John Heard, who seems like he will have a major role until he becomes an early victim, only Cassie Scerbo (who looks fantastic in a bikini, even with a shark scar on her upper thigh) gives it her all and has the kind of fun an actor should when romping around in something called Sharknado.
Besides the suspiciously selective-for-sharks cyclones (why couldn’t a tornado dump a bunch of lobster on us, preferably during a drizzle of drawn butter?), there are many deliberately dumb moments in the script that will have you shaking your head in either delight or disgust. For example, there’s a scene where the heroes are driving around the flooded streets of L.A. in their SUV and we are told that a full grown tiger shark is swimming under the car. Later, these geniuses scheme to destroy the sharknadoes by flying a helicopter into them and dropping a bomb, reasoning that “tornadoes happen when cold and warm air meet. If you drop a bomb head right in the middle of it, you just might equalize it.”
But, you must resist testing your wits by looking for the plot holes in Sharknado. That’s just what the filmmakers want you to do—to congratulate yourself for being smarter than the people who made this movie, while they in the meantime lounge on the Santa Monica beach, drinking fruity beverages with umbrellas and slices of pineapple in them and texting their financial advisers to see what investments they should buy with the money people like you paid for the DVD. Although these shark movies made by the studio known as the Asylum can be fun in a junk-food cinema sense, they are basically a scam; they profit off hastily churning out shoddy shark product and marketing it as camp. Critics were surprisingly kind to Sharknado. But the praise only rewards the filmmakers for being dumb, and encourages them to try to be even stupider next time out. I very nearly gave this schlock a “beware” rating, and only relented because, if by some miracle you have managed to avoid the Asylum’s other aquatic monstrosities like Mega Piranha and Sharktopus, Sharknado will seem original and mildly amusing. Enough said.
Much like contemporary children can’t comprehend how “Fonzie” could ever be considered cool, future generations will find it hard to believe that the television debut of Sharknado was a pop culture event. Archive this report from The Verge of this compendium of tweets from the Huffington Post and show them to your grandchildren to prove to them that, yes, a movie about a tornado full of sharks was a big deal for a couple of hours in 2013. Hopefully, that generation will look back at Sharknado as the point at which the seafood horror genre (please forgive me) jumped the shark.
FEATURING: Sarah Sutton, Brenda Bruce, June Taylor, Judy Parfitt, Freddie Jones, Geoffrey Bayldon, Richard Pearson, Raymond Mason, Anthony Collin, Douglas Milvain
PLOT: On a boring, snowy afternoon, young Alice discovers that she can walk right through the large mirror over her fireplace; there, she finds herself in a parallel universe, competing in a life-size chess game ruled over by the Red and White Queens, and meeting such strange characters as Humpty Dumpty, the White Knight, and the twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Even though this is actually one of the better film or television adaptations of the “Alice” books, it’s extremely low budget and bare-bones, shot-on-videotape look prevents the visuals from getting as wild or fantastical as they might be.
COMMENTS: Although most filmed versions of Lewis Carroll’s novel “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (1865) include elements of his sequel “Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There” (1871), this production is one of just three or four adaptations of the second book standing alone. Some consider “Through the Looking Glass” to be the better of the two “Alice” tales, being simultaneously stranger and more sentimental than its predecessor. Aired by the BBC on Christmas Day 1973, this trip through the mirror really looks like a 40-year-old television show; that is to say, the budget is rock bottom. The lack of fancy special effects means that this is basically all (brilliant) dialogue all the time, which may strike some as boring. For those who have read the novel, however, this is actually one of the few adaptations that is genuinely amusing (at least in fits and starts), as opposed to just odd. During the sequence depicting the “Jabberwocky” monster, for instance, the combination of threadbare effects (the monster resembles a sock puppet) and gesticulating, posing actors, renders the silliness almost Monty Python-esque, which seems to have been intentional. The lack of big name actors also makes this version somewhat unusual, since most other “Alice” productions are chock-full of luminaries (the biggest names here did their notable work later, Red Queen Judy Parfitt in 1995’s Dolores Claiborne and Humpty Dumpty Freddie Jones in David Lynch‘s The Elephant Man and Dune). The performers (including future “Doctor Who” sidekick Sarah Sutton, who looks about eleven years old here) stand in front of primitive blue screen backgrounds that resemble John Tenniel’s original book illustrations, and generally have a fine old time, particularly Jones, who is basically just playing a giant head. This is also the only “Looking Glass” I’ve seen where the White King (Richard Pearson) is more memorable than the White Queen (Brenda Bruce). The droll performances, including Geoffrey Bayldon’s unexpectedly acerbic White Knight, almost make up for the shoestring production values in this 74-minute program (not 66 minutes, as it says on the box). There are flaws to be sure: the calamitous dinner party finale is nowhere near as crazy as its counterpart in Hollywood’s 1933 version of Alice in Wonderland, for example. But although this production is unlikely to please the kids, it’s a surprisingly pleasant experience for oldsters who’ve been raised on the original books.
Since this is a DVD of a little-known television program, the disc has no extras and is presented in mono sound. The image, while a little soft, looks presentable enough for a video that has probably been sitting in the BBC vaults for four decades.
PLOT: A faithful adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s children’s book about the girl who falls down the rabbit hole, with musical numbers.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: We’ve watched so many variations of Alice aimed at adults—from Jonathan Miller‘s dreamlike 1966 version to Jan Svankmajer‘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.
“There was a time when meadow, grove, and stream,
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light,
The glory and the freshness of a dream.
It is not now as it hath been of yore;–
Turn wheresoe’er I may,
By night or day,
The things which I have seen I now can see no more.”
FEATURING: Anne-Marie Mallik, Peter Cook, Leo McKern, Michael Redgrave, Alison Leggatt, Peter Sellers, John Gielgud
PLOT: Young Alice has her hair roughly brushed by a nurse before she heads out to sit by a riverbank with her sister; as her sister reads she falls asleep. She wakes to see a man in formal Victorian dress walking through the woods and follows him into a strange deserted building where she discovers potions that shrink her and cakes that maker her grow larger. As she continues wandering about she meets many odd characters, including a Duchess in drag and three men caught at an endless tea party, and eventually a King and Queen who put her on trial.
This version of Alice was produced for the BBC and first aired on December 28, 1966.
The BBC scheduled Alice in Wonderland to play only after 9 PM, the slot usually slated for “adult” content, leading to some minor public controversy about whether the film was appropriate for children. (There’s nothing inappropriate in Miller’s adaptation of “Alice,” but this treatment is aimed at adults and kids would probably find it boring).
30 minutes of the film that were cut by the producers appear to have been lost permanently.
Director Jonathan Miller was a founding member of the stage comedy troupe “Beyond the Fringe,” which also included Dudley Moore, Alan Bennet (who appears in a small role here as the mouse), and Peter Cook (who appears in a large role as the Mad Hatter).
Alice in Wonderland was the only film appearance for star Anne-Marie Mallik.
This was future Monty Python mainstay Eric Idle’s first appearance on film (he has a small, uncredited part as a guard).
Ravi Shankar provided the lovely, meditative sitar score; it has never been released separately.
INDELIBLE IMAGE: There are many quietly sublime moments in Johnathan Miller’s Alice in Wonderland: Alice chasing the White Rabbit through a corridor lined with billowing white curtains, a shot of the overgrown girl dominating the foreground with the bedroom behind her subtly bent by the wide-angle lens, the Mock Turtle and Gryphon capering silhouetted against the sunrise on a rocky beach at low tide. We chose to highlight the instnat when the Cheshire Cat appears in the sky above the croquet game. This is the movie’s only special effect and one of the few moments when something overtly magical actually happens in Wonderland; such a moment sets off the minimalistic strangeness of the rest of the production. (Alice’s indifferent, emotionless reaction to the apparition only adds to the oddness).
WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Jonathan Miller exhumes a Wonderland without magical beings: the White Rabbit is just a stuffed shirt in a waistcoat, the Cheshire Cat is an ordinary house cat, the drowned animals by the pool of tears are a soggy band of Victorian citizens. By unmasking the story’s anthropomorphic animals, he de-cutifies the fairy tale; the result is, unexpectedly, one of the weirdest and most dreamlike Alices ever put on film.