Tag Archives: Alice in Wonderland

GUEST REVIEW: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933)

Guest review by Scott Sentinella, a freelance writer whose work has appeared in “The Carson News”, “The Gardena Valley News”, “Animato”, “Videomania Newspaper”, “Cashiers du Cinemart”, Dugpa.com and ALivingDog.com.

DIRECTOR: Norman Z. McLeod

FEATURING: Charlotte Henry, Gary Cooper, , Cary Grant, Mae Marsh, , Alison Skipworth, Charlie Ruggles, Edward Everett Horton, Sterling Holloway, and many others.

PLOT: A teenage girl named Alice travels through a mirror into a nonsensical fantasy world

Still from Alice in Wonderland (1933)

where animals talk, mad tea parties are held and queens threaten beheadings.

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because of the source material, and because of this version’s especially creepy use of bizarre, grotesque masks on many members of its all-star cast.

COMMENTS: Before Tim Burton’s 2010 Alice in Wonderland, every big-screen adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic book had flopped at the box office, and this early 1930’s curio was no exception.  Directed by Norman Z. McLeod (known for the Marx Brothers’ Monkey Business and Horse Feathers), and with a screenplay by Joseph L, Mankiewicz (All About Eve) and William Cameron Menzies (better known as the art director on Gone With the Wind), this primitive-looking extravaganza rounded up some 22 stars from the Paramount lot and immediately hid most of them behind very unpleasant-looking masks and bulky costumes.  This Alice was made only five-and-a-half years before The Wizard of Oz, but some of the technology on display here looks like it was left over from the Victorian era.  (Incidentally, Alice’s then-starry cast now consists of three legends—Cooper, Fields, Grant; a lot of character actors familiar to viewers of Turner Classic Movies—Horton, Holloway, Ruggles; and then a host of performers unknown to even the most die-hard classic film buffs—-Jackie Searle? Raymond Hatton?) The results are a bit too disturbing, even for Lewis Carroll, but at least it captures the madness of the novel(s) in a way that Burton’s neutered, watered-down disappointment never really does.  Like most films based on Alice, this one liberally combines elements of both “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.”  This time, Alice (Babes in Toyland’s Charlotte Henry) first finds her way through a mirror and then tumbles down a rabbit hole, where she meets the usual Continue reading GUEST REVIEW: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1933)

75. ALICE [NECO Z ALENKY] (1988)

“Alice thought to herself, ‘Now you will see a film made for children… perhaps.  But—I nearly forgot—you must close your eyes.  Otherwise, you won’t see anything.'”–Opening narration to Alice

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DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Kristýna Kohoutová, voice of Camilla Power (in English dubbed version)

PLOT: A bored young girl sits in a drab room throwing stones into a teacup when she suddenly sees a stuffed white rabbit in a display case come to life, pull a sawdust-covered stopwatch from inside its torso, and disappear into a desk drawer.  She follows it and winds up in a strange land full of talking socks, slithering steaks, and menacing skull-headed animals with razor sharp teeth.  The girl follows the white rabbit through a series of bizarre rooms until he leads her to a playing card king and queen who order the rabbit to cut off her head with the pair of scissors he carries.

Still from Alice (Neco z Alenky) (1988)

BACKGROUND:

  • Alice was Jan Svankmajer’s first feature length film after making award-winning short films for twenty-four years.  After Alice he returned to making shorts for six years before he made his next feature, Faust, in 1994.
  • Before branching out into filmmaking, Svankmajer’s primary training had been in building marionettes.
  • Svankmajer sneaks a couple of references to classic horror/suspense films into Alice: a scene where Alice is menaced by a flying creature is reminiscent of Hitchcock’s The Birds (1963), and a scene where the White Rabbit takes an axe to a door and then sticks his head through the hole is a blackly funny citation to Kubrick‘s The Shining (1980).

INDELIBLE IMAGE:  Although it’s difficult to top the bony “animals” that look like they were reassembled at random from a jumbled pile of a paleontologist’s relics, it’s the White Rabbit who makes the biggest impression, from the moment he comes to life and pulls his paws out from the display case floor where they had been nailed.  His strangest habit is licking sawdust (his own guts) off the pocket watch he keeps stashed inside a wound-like gash in his torso.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD:  “Alice in Wonderland” is a nonsense fantasy, a fairy tale of fractured reality; it makes a perfect template for a weird movie, but no adaptation has taken the story so deep into the frightening labyrinths of the subconscious as this uncanny animation. Carroll’s and Svankmajer’s opposite talents and sensibilities complement each other perfectly, like pure cane sugar mixed with white powder heroin.


Clip from Alice

COMMENTS:  “Alice in Wonderland” has been adapted for the screen a dozen times, and the Continue reading 75. ALICE [NECO Z ALENKY] (1988)

LIST CANDIDATE: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951)

Recommended

DIRECTOR: Clyde Geronimi, Wilfred Jackson, Hamilton Luske

 

FEATURING: Voices of Kathryn Beaumont, Ed Wynn, Sterling Holloway, Verna Felton, J. Pat O’Malley, Bill Thompson

PLOT: A young girl named Alice follows a talking white hare down his rabbit hole and into a world of talking animals, smoking insects, walking playing cards, and other nonsense creatures.

Still from Alice in Wonderland (1951)

WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: Because of the source material.  Disney animator Eric Goldberg explains Alice‘s appeal: “I think the book ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is popular because it’s completely absurd… The book, in its kind of weirdness, persists because people like weird.”  The question becomes, does Disneyfication destroy the story’s weirdness?

COMMENTS: Though it doesn’t reach the level of the classic-era Disney animated masterpieces Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs (1937) or Pinocchio (1940), Alice in Wonderland is certainly in the next tier—notwithstanding the fact that it didn’t fare well on its initial release.  The animation, obviously, is glowing and superlative, and the anything-can-happen-here surrealism of the story gave the Disney artists the license to let their imaginations run wild without being fettered even by cartoon realism.  As might be expected, the result is worlds away from the staid, quaintly absurd black and white line drawings of Sir John Tenniel (the standard vision of Alice and Wonderland up until that time).  The rabbit hole, with its grandfather clocks and rocking chairs floating at different rates, doesn’t follow the rules of gravity; the flexibility of the playing card royal guards allows the animators to arrange them into pickets or to spontaneously form roller coasters to take Alice for a ride.  Scarcity of spectacle is not an issue in Wonderland.  As an adaptation, this Alice is surprisingly smooth.  Episodes from the book have been shuffled around and mixed with characters and events from “Through the Looking Glass,” an example that future Alices would follow (since no one wants to leave out Tweedledee and Tweedledum).  Even digressions like the “The Walrus and the Carpenter” interlude, which plays like a self-standing Looney Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (1951)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: ALICE [NECO Z ALENKY] (1988)

Alice has been placed on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies of All Time; the complete entry can be found here.

DIRECTED BY: Jan Svankmajer

FEATURING: Kristýna Kohoutová

PLOT: Experimental Czech animator Jan Svankmajer crafts a decidedly creepier version of

Still from Alice (Neco Z Alenky) (1988)

Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice in Wonderland, moving the action to a decrepit house and replacing most of the characters with crude stop-motion dolls.  A live-action Alice moves among them, making her way through various rooms that correlate to scenes in the original story.


WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST: Svankmajer’s remarkably innovative visuals, haunting use of sound effects, and minimalist storytelling render a familiar tale almost unrecognizable, removing sugarcoated elements of childhood fantasy and replacing them with a macabre surrealism.  His unsettling animation techniques and intricate set design are undeniably bizarre, giving the proceedings a shiver-inducing aspect that’s difficult to identify.  It’s a strange, imaginative film whose weirdness is guaranteed to leave an imprint on viewers.

COMMENTS: Most casual filmgoers associate animation with twirling princesses, talking toys, and catchy music numbers—just pleasant family fun.  Jan Svankmajer rejects this notion.  In works like Alice, he employs the undeniably off-putting technique of combining live-action actors with stop-motion figures.  The effect is a memorably uncanny take on a classic story, making an already-weird children’s tale even weirder.  Alice makes her way through cupboards, paper walls, and doors of varying sizes in a seemingly never-ending, decaying house (sometimes inexplicably opening up into a woodland field), encountering numerous recognizable characters in unrecognizable forms.  The source material is naturally altered in this re-imagining, both in plot and tone.

The White Rabbit is a rejuvenated taxidermied bunny, with wide plastic eyes and a stomach leaking sawdust.  He chatters his large teeth menacingly and licks his pocketwatch with a humanoid tongue.  The Caterpillar is a torn sock puppet with human eyes and teeth, presiding over a litter of phallic cloth creatures moving rapidly within the floorboards.  The Mad Hatter is a bearded wooden marionette, and the Queen of Hearts is a 2-D cut-paper drawing.  Alice herself becomes an old-fashioned china doll whenever she’s miniaturized.  Each character design fits both the unsettling atmosphere of the film as a whole and the dusty, antique look of the “Wonderland” house.

An extraordinary facet of Alice is the sound design.  There is absolutely no music.  Svankmajer instead opts for a range of effective, often gratuitous sound effects.  There is very little dialogue, and the few spoken lines by any character are all said by Alice herself, often accompanied by a close-up shot of her mouth as she indicates who is talking.  The special attention to sound effects and lack of conversation among these fantastic creatures actually keep it from becoming a typical fantasy.  Despite the unreal nature of the visuals, it feels more grounded in reality without the specific music cues or over-scripted conversation typical of other films, even while we are consistently drawn back to its status as a fairy tale when Alice’s lips are shown narrating.

Alice is the kind of film that isn’t especially frightening—at least, not in a standard horror-movie sense. Viewers are thus affected because they can’t actually figure out what is so scary about it.  Perhaps it’s our innate fear of taxidermied animals coming back to life, or the unnaturalness of food moving about on its own, or the inherent creepiness of abandoned houses, or the frequent use of close-up shots, or the eerie stillness that comes with lack of a musical score.  Perhaps it’s just the utter uncanniness of everything that happens in this movie.  Whatever it is, it’s really weird, and completely captivating.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…has an irresistible potency and allure. Watching it, we feel the enthrallment of the irrational.”–Hal Hinson, The Washington Post (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “Leslie Rae,” who called it “one of the most visually disturbing/surrealistic films I’ve ever seen.”  Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: MALICE IN WONDERLAND (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Simon Fellows

FEATURING: Maggie Grace, Danny Dyer

PLOT:  American Alice gets amnesia after being hit by a taxicab while fleeing unknown

Still from Malice in Wonderland (2009)

pursuers; she tries to figure out her identity while traveling through a hallucinatory Wonderland of London gangsters.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a diverting weird movie and a must for Alice-adaptation completists, but it’s neither weird nor good enough to be on the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies.

COMMENTS: Malice in Wonderland may not be the ultimate trip to Wonderland, but you have to give scripter Jayson Rothwell major props for one thing: unlike other “Alice in Wonderland” updates (*cough*, Burton, *cough*), he doesn’t shy away from wordplay and nonsense.  A riddle (delivered by a talking billboard) serves as a major plot point, although the answer is a bit bungled at the end.  Puns are scattered throughout the movie (check out the way Alice steals the tarts), and some characters speak only in rhyming couplets.  Whitey addresses Alice as “Britney,” and when the amnesiac objects that that’s not her name, he shoots back with the Humpty Dumpty-esque rejoinder, “You don’t know who you are, so you don’t know who you aren’t.”  There’s a cleverness to this script and a love of nonsense that goes beyond just re-imagining the beloved characters in a novel setting.  That part’s admirable, but the script also falls into one of the more annoying rabbit holes that plague Alice adaptations; giving Alice a romantic interest (or a platonic boyfriend to serve the same purpose, like Johnny Depp‘s Mad Hatter in the latest Disney version).  Ideally, Alice should wander through Wonderland meeting bizarre entities who help and hinder her in equal parts, with no way of predicting which will come next.  The romantic anchor, always ready to lend Alice his aid and rescue her when things get tough, is an unnecessary safety net and an unwelcome intrusion of Hollywood reality.  In Malice‘s case, the misstep is aggravated by the fact that there’s no real chemistry between leads Maggie Grace and Danny Dyer, and no motivation for them to get together; in fact, their dalliance only distracts from Alice’s quest to rediscover her identity.  Grace’s performance (or her direction) can also be faulted for not being beleaguered and bewildered enough; she’s suddenly thrown into a world of grimy, loony London lowlifes, and accepts the insanity too easily, never seeming the slightest bit endangered or even very concerned.  True, that world seems only a tad bit more off and dangerous than a typical Guy Ritchie movie—the gangsters’ extreme quirkiness defangs them—but a little more fear and urgency would have helped involve the viewer in her plight.  One last criticism: when the movie reverts to reality to wrap up the psychological loose ends, the transition from the psychedelic London underground of hoodlums to the physical London Underground of mass transit is awkward and arbitrary.  Malice may not go very deep, but it’s entertaining, clever, colorful, and zips along at a nice clip.  And what lover of light absurdity won’t respond to a smoky midnight ride with a rapping Rastafarian and a hooker, a mobile brothel in the bed of a sixteen wheeler, continuous trippy flashbacks, and a competition among thugs and con-men to deliver an impressive gift to the gangland kingpin who has everything?

Malice in Wonderland received shockingly low marks from the critics (only a 10% positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes?)  A quick analysis of that data reveals the negative reviews coming from the United Kingdom, and they seem to be largely related to some sort of national Danny Dyer fatigue.  Dyer wasn’t spectacular (which may be as much the fault of his part being underwritten as his talent), but I had no objection to the bloke other than his sometimes incomprehensible Cockney accent.  Looking at his résumé, it appears he may be a bit overexposed at the moment, and if he’s repeating basically the same shtick in every BBC role as he does in this movie, I can see how he might grow tiresome.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Despite its faults, for fleeting moments the movie is both visually striking and enjoyably bizarre, although all too often positioning the camera at a jaunty angle is mistaken for a surreal perspective leading you to spend much of Malice In Wonderland’s 90 minute duration wondering whether a broken tripod is responsible for your skewed view of proceedings.”–Daniel Bettridge, Film 4 (contemporaneous)

(This movie was nominated for review by reader “alexis.” Suggest a weird movie of your own here.)

CAPSULE: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: , Johnny Depp, the head of , , voices of Stephen Fry and Christopher Lee

PLOT:  About to be proposed to by a doltish fop, Alice excuses herself to tumble down a rabbit hole where she learns she has been chosen to slay the Jabberwock[y].

Still from Alice in Wonderland (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not weird enough.  Burton, perhaps fearful of angering the gravy-train drivers at Disney, dims down the absurdity in this version of Alice, recasting the tale as an epic fantasy war fought by a cast of weirdos.

COMMENTSAlice in Wonderland (which should have been titled Alice in Underland, if anyone had been paying attention) is a good-looking film with a few positives, but a recycled story that’s far from enchanting.  The candy-colored visuals are as top-notch as expected, with plenty of little details to soak in: look for a dragonfly-sized flying rocking horse and a moat with floating stones that appear to be petrified severed heads.  Helena Bonham Carter’s macrocephalic visage is almost worth the price of admission, and her performance as the Red Queen is suitably comic and imperious.  But the story—ouch!  Alice’s previous visit to Wonderland—oops, make that Underland, as it’s denizens insist it’s properly called—nine years ago was real, but she’s forgotten it for some reason, which is fine because her past adventures served no purpose whatsoever.  In this sequel, the poem “Jabberwocky” is a prophecy that predicts Alice will find the vorpal blade and snicker-snack it into the neck of the dreaded Jabberwock(y) on Frabjous Day.  The Mad Hatter reads the verse word for word to the disbelieving Alice, neither of them noticing that the lines refer to a “beamish boy;” Alice may be beamish, but she’s no boy.  But who cares about such details?  They can’t even get the monster’s name right after reading it off the page: everyone refers to the Jabberwock as the “Jabberwocky” (which is like calling Odysseus “Odyssey”).  We may wonder about such inconsistencies, but such uffish considerations only matter in a tightly constructed nonsense world like Wonderland; we’re in Underland, and here there are quirky companions to collect before galumphing off to slay dragons with magical swords.  Burton’s non-nonsense epic fantasy plays like an original concept by Lewis Carroll that’s been script doctored by J.R.R. Tolkien, then sent back by the corporate suits to add more fight scenes to appeal to boys and a feminist moral about self-actualization for the girls.  Despite the occasional chase scene by a pack of guards who look as much like Terminator robots as playing cards, curiously, for the most part the early story plays out much as in Carroll’s tale.  Alice retraces her steps, eating and drinking shrinking and growing potions and cakes and meets a hookah smoking Caterpillar.  The Cheshire Cat directs her to a mad tea party.  But things get less and less curiouser and more and more familiarer as the tale continues.  It turns out that the tea party really isn’t mad, it’s just a ruse by the Resistance to avoid detection by the authorities. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter isn’t mad either (and certainly not bonkers); perhaps he’s slightly perturbed, but his faculties are all about him as leads the fight for freedom, even taking up a sword for the final battle.  I have no problem with taking liberties with Carroll’s tone and story, but if you’re going to depart from the original you should replace it with something interesting, not just a generic fantasy quest rehash.  Nick Willing’s Alice, with it’s human “oysters” being drained of their emotions, tapped into a more cusiously skewed Alice scenario.  It’s a shame that that premise couldn’t have been matched to this budget.  Tim Burton’s Alice isn’t bad, it’s just forgettable—something that could only happen in Underland, not Wonderland.

To some extent, Burton may be the victim of high expectations.  Carroll and Burton seemed the perfect match, and there were high hopes that this material might allow Tim to return to the glory days of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, when his fantasies managed to tap the popular consciousness while still dripping with edgy originality. Those of us who got our hopes up should have recognized that Alice in Wonderland is a kids’ movie intended as a blockbuster; Disney isn’t about to let Burton take chances with the story.  His commission directed him to deliver Tim Burton visuals inside a safe script, and that’s what he did.  The movie works fine for the little ones, but offers little to adults besides eye candy and a couple of chuckles.  If Burton’s going to bounce back (and I’m starting to doubt he ever will), we’ll have to wait until he feels like he’s finally garnered enough dough and Hollywood validation to start taking chances again.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…neither is [Burton’s] Alice, sad to report, in the least bit lysergic. On the contrary, the movie is positively sober in its positive image projection and concern with itself as a business model. Like more than one recent movie, Alice seems a trailer for a Wonderland computer game—and it is. The final battle is clearly designed for gaming.”–J. Hobermann, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: ALICE (2009)

DIRECTED BY: Nick Willing

FEATURING: Caterina Scorsone, Andrew Lee Potts, Kathy Bates, Matt Frewer, Colm Meaney, Philip Winchester, Eugene Lipinski, Tim Curry, Harry Dean Stanton

PLOT: Karate-instructor Alice finds herself in Wonderland, 150 years after her

Still from Alice (2009 miniseries)

predecessor of the same name; things have changed drastically, as the Red Queen now rules a totalitarian society with an economy that depends on a fresh supply of people from our world to keep the natives pacified.

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Alice is an imaginative, solid fantasy/adventure/comedy/romance, but it has only a few shadings of weird to it.  A SyFy channel production, it passes as “surreal” by basic cable standards, but this is the big time, guys.

COMMENTS: Tonally, Alice is only distantly related to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” but at least the movie has a decent explanation for that: 150 years have passed since Alice first fell down the rabbit hole, in which time technological advances and two world wars changed our world’s landscape and psyche forever.  An equal length of time passed in Wonderland, and things there have changed for the worse, as well.  They’ve developed automatic weapons, for one thing; for another, the anthropomorphic animals have evolved into full-fledged humans, with complex motivations and back stories.  Most importantly, thanks to the Queen of Hearts’ tyrannical rule, the halcyon days of whiling away the time with wordplay, nonsense verse and tea parties have been replaced by a deadly power struggle between the Queen, who controls the populace through narcotizing potions of curious manufacture, and various underground resistance movements.  That synopsis makes Alice sound a bit darker than it actually is; in fact, there’s plenty of comedy and whimsy running about in this postmodern Wonderland.  Much of the silly fun is provided by Kathy Bates’ arrogant Queen (always a plum role in Alice adaptations), who reminds Alice that she’s “the most powerful woman in the history of literature.”   The most memorable comic performance; however, goes to Matt Frewer’s White Knight, a bumbling, mumbling relic with delusions of grandeur.  As we might hope in an Alice movie, the costumes and set design are a plus.  Instead of a castle, the Wonderland monarchy has set up shop inside a 1960’s mod casino that might have come out of an Austin Powers movie.  Weird notes are struck by an assassin with a Brooklyn accent and a porcelain rabbit’s head, and Alice’s hypnotic interrogation in “The Truth Room” by the Naziesque Drs. Dee and Dum.  All of the major characters from Carroll’s books are referenced, often in clever ways, and part of the fun of the movie is in catching the cameos and tributes to minor characters (the unexpected appearance of the Borogoves is a particular favorite).  Downsides to the production are cheap CGI (a disappointing Jabberwock), action sequences that often fall flat (karate instructor or not, it’s difficult to credit the sylphlike Alice repeatedly knocking grown men about like cardboard cutouts), and a grand finale that swiftly gallops from merely contrived to the utterly cornball.  The cameos by cult icons Curry (as Dodo) and Stanton (as Caterpillar) are short and disappointing.  Still, Alice‘s strengths overcome it’s weaknesses, and the movie delivers solid entertainment.  The adventure and romance threads are balanced with narrative skill, the comic relief generally works, and its three hour running time allows it to invest Wonderland and its characters with an impressive amount of detail without ever seriously dragging.

British director Willing specializes in the underutilized miniseries format.  He made a star-studded, straightforward adaptation of Alice and Wonderland for NBC in 1999, featuring Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Kingsley, Martin Short, and Miranda Richardson, and others.  He also helmed Tin Man, a 2007 “re-imaging” that did for Frank Baum’s The Wizard of Oz what Alice did for Carroll’s books.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“What ultimately sinks ‘Alice’ is that it is too normal. Carroll’s nonsense, anarchy and druggy weirdness always turned the tale into a fevered dream. Here, Alice disappears instead into a tired missing-father subplot.”–Randee Dawn, The Hollywood Reporter (TV broadcast)