Monday, March 8, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

My earliest memories of Alice in Wonderland are not of the Disney movie, as most people's probably are, and not of the books either. Instead I most remember the 1985 TV mini series which followed the books a lot closer than the Disney version did. It was absolutely chock full of guest stars, had lots of musical performances and one incredibly scary Jabberwocky. I remember reading the Jabberwocky poem somewhere in my school years and loving it, with its nonsense words and the idea that it was this young boy who was actually the one to defeat the beast. In college we read the first book as part of one of my lit courses. My professor took the approach that since Lewis Carroll said it was nothing more than a children's book, that's all it was.. no allegory or commentary being made within it. However, it kind of makes you wonder why he wanted it to be college reading material then... though I can say that reading it as an adult made me appreciate the writing style that much more.

If there is a writer I wish I could be, it's probably Lewis Carroll. How could one not be jealous of the way he plays with words? Just read the first chapter of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland if you don't know what I mean. It's just gorgeous.

Not long after being assigned to read the book in college, Disney released their Alice movie onto DVD for the first time. I know I had seen the movie at some point in my childhood, but it had been so long at that point that it was almost like seeing it with new eyes. I remember being incredibly disappointed by the mish-mash that Disney created. Granted, it took the aforementioned TV special 3 hours to tell most of the story, so I know he had to make some sacrifices. Also, if you know your Disney history you know that Walt really loved the Alice story, so I'm sure he was probably just picking some of his favorite scenes here and there to make the best movie he could.

I re-watched the TV special sometime last year as they finally gave it a DVD release. I rented it from Netflix and I have to say with the nostalgia glasses off there are definitely some weaknesses there. Natalie Gregory, who plays Alice, can get rather whiny at times. The costumes are a little silly, even by 80s technology standards. But overall I think it’s definitely worth a one-time viewing just to see a who's who of anybody who had a career in the mid-80s. If you can’t be bothered to sit through it, at least view this: He brings up two of the most memorable scenes, Carol Channing’s crazy performance and that ultra scary Jabberwocky. (The video is marked mature content, but there's really only some mild cursing. The first 4:19 minutes are about the Disney version.)

While it’s not your average interpretation, another connection to the Alice series I've always loved was the Batman villain the Mad Hatter, specifically the animated series version. His origin episode (“Mad as a Hatter”) has so many Alice references cluttered throughout and is probably worth a rent even if you're not a Batman/superhero fan at all.

Another piece I really think is worth mentioning in Alice interpretations is American McGee's Alice. It's a video game, not a movie like the others, but the art is absolutely gorgeous and the story is an interesting dark take on the whole thing. Sadly, I haven't played very much of this game so I can't really give you a review per se.. but I will say that the concept art, with the skinny Cheshire Cat and the downright creepy Mad Hatter is definitely worth a look.

There are so many versions of this story made over the years that I can't possibly include them all. I'd like to get to as many of them as I can eventually.

When it was first announced that Tim Burton was making his own version of Alice in Wonderland, I was incredibly apprehensive. Not only was it yet another Tim Burton/Johnny Depp/Helena Bonham Carter movie, but the last two remakes he'd come out with had left bad tastes in my mouth. Truer to the book or not, his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was colorful and pretty to look at but just not anywhere near as enjoyable as the original movie. The origin story and Johnny Depp's choice in characterization just didn't do it for me at all. Watching Sweeney Todd, all I could think was "man, this would be great if they had actually chosen leads who knew how to sing!" So with all that in mind, I just didn't know whether he was going to treat my beloved Alice properly or not.

From the moment the movie started, I was enchanted. The set designs, the costumes, the CGI were all very beautiful. The 3D effects are fairly limited (they were tacked on after the fact) so if you wanted to save a few dollars I wouldn't fault you, but I didn't feel cheated for paying for them either. While I haven't been crazy about the look of the Mad Hatter from the first time I saw the photos, I enjoy the look of nearly all the other characters presented here. Casting choices on nearly all hands were also brilliant. Both Depp and Carter handled their roles wonderfully.. this wasn't like Sweeney Todd where I felt both of them only got the job because of director bias. Allow me to gush on a couple:

Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat - I absolutely loved this version of the character! I'm a cat person in general and I've always loved the Cheshire Cat.. he has the whimsy and flightiness of a cat without the tacked on "evil" qualities that so many foolish writers (probably biased dog lovers :P) like to give them. Stephen Fry has one of those voices you could just listen to for hours anyway, but he really lended "Chesh" just the right amount of playfulness here.

Crispin Glover as The Knave of Hearts - For being a character who is extremely different from what he was in the books, he fits perfectly in place in the movie. And did someone actually manage to make Crispin Glover look kind of attractive? Give them an Oscar! Ok, maybe I'm just weird, or maybe he was just so perfectly suited for this slightly creepy, scarred character. I loved the stretched out look they gave him, as well as that of all the other cards.

Mia Wasikowska as Alice - This movie could have easily been terrible if the girl chosen as Alice had been picked for her looks while disregarding her acting, or by choosing a big name to help push people into the seats. While I can think of a few "big" names who probably could have inhabited the role, I'm glad they went with an unknown. The wonder of these stories is that Alice is an ordinary girl, even if she's one who thinks a little different than most, and allows ourselves to wish we could maybe find ourselves in Wonderland one day too. I hope Mia gets more roles following this movie.. I thought she did great.

I loved the changes to this story, and how it was a sort of sequel while also retaining a lot of the books' moments. One thing I wasn't too pleased about was the suggestion of a romance between Alice and the Mad Hatter. I know enough about the internet to know that the slash fiction is out there, even before this movie and even about the Disney animated versions (eep!), but I really could have done without it. Nineteen years old now or not, that was just a bit ick. Luckily it's not huge and you could even pretend that it isn't that at all if you really wanted to.

What I really absolutely loved was that she got to be the one to use the vorpal blade and slay the Jabberwocky. I also thought it was a nice touch to make the Dormouse female, and have her wield a sword, even if it did make her an awful lot like a female version of Reepicheep from the Narnia series. It's just nice to see women holding their own in these types of movies without everyone making a huge deal over the fact that they're female.

Oh and yes, the dance is stupid. No, it doesn't ruin the whole movie. It's there and done and you could easily close your eyes for a moment and miss it. Besides, I knew it meant I was going to hear "Oh frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!" and really that made all the difference for me.

EDIT: I was reminded after I wrote this that there are two more Alice interpretations I am familiar with.

Jan Svankmeyer's Alice - I watched this a few years ago and the details I remember are few. I believe there is very little dialogue and it relies mostly on the stop motion animation (combined with a real life Alice) to tell the story. The creatures are quite creepy and interesting to look at.

Alice by Tom Waits - An album which is essentially the soundtrack to a play about Carroll being in love with the real life Alice Lidell. I haven't listened to this one in ages either, but Tom Waits' voice and love of strange percussion fit very well with the various Alice imagery he uses in the songs. "We're All Mad Here" is my favorite. Not on this album but also worth looking for is Tom Waits reciting The Jabberwocky poem.


  1. Glad you liked it, great review.

    Would like to point out that while Walt loved the Alice story, he was not at all happy with how the Alice in Wonderland animated feature ended up. Alice was insipid, the movie was disjointed with the story getting lost along the way and he lost interest in the project. And you can tell. I don't have time to track down the source to quote him exactly, but he was never happy with nor proud of that Alice in Wonderland movie.

  2. You know, that doesn't really surprise me at all. Thanks for the info! :)


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