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
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Hearts’ tyrannical rule, the halcyon days of whiling away the time with wordplay, nonsense verse and tea parties have been replaced by a deadly power struggle between the Queen, who controls the populace through narcotizing potions of curious manufacture, and various underground resistance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)