Reality Entertainment // 2009 // 75 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Appellate Judge Mac McEntire // February 11th, 2010
"'Alice' is Greek for 'Truth.'"
You've heard of The Da Vinci Code? We might as well call this thing The Lewis Carroll Code.
Carroll's two-part classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are beloved by all ages for a good reason they're just fun to read. They contain colorful characters, memorable imagery, and playful, tongue-twisty dialogue. That last bit often earns the books the title of "nonsense literature," but there are many who have argued that there are deeper meanings in the work. Alice eats and drinks transformative substances and she encounters white rabbits and mushrooms. Could these be references to drug use? There's a peasant whose baby becomes a pig, and there's a queen fond of shouting "Off with his head." Are these scenes political satire?
In the documentary Initiation of Alice in Wonderland: The Looking Glass of Lewis Carroll, director Philip Gardiner hopes to unlock some of tangled mysteries of Wonderland by exploring the life and interests of the man who created it. It's apparent from early on, though, that trying to figure out what was going on inside Carroll's head is no easier than trying to figure out riddles posed by the Cheshire Cat.
Gardiner goes for a visual approach when discussing Carroll and his famous work. This is a bright, colorful movie, enhanced by a lot of bargain CGI. The constant, non-step computer effects are far from photo-real, but they do their job in illustrating the many points discussed throughout the movie. Also, a young actress portraying Alice wanders silently from scene to scene, helping to recreate images from the books, and also demonstrating curiosity and a sense of exploration. Clips from a silent film-era adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and historical photos with CGI swirly bits around their edges further help the visuals.
Just as the dialogue and characters in Alice are filled with contradictions, Carroll's life was similarly contradictory. He was a mathematician, utterly devoted to logic, and yet he also spent many years studying religion as a member of the clergy. He never married or became a father, and yet he surrounded himself with children throughout his adult life. The documentary makes several points about the man's personal history, tying them into the book, but no one conclusion is ever reached. For example, the movie argues that Alice's constant refrain of "I don't believe that" represents Carroll's unwavering dedication to logic and mathematics. Conversely, the many illogical oddities of Wonderland represent not just Carroll's studies with the clergy, but his study of alleged secret religions, which use hallucinogens and/or purposefully induced dream states to achieve spiritual visions. So, is the book a logical text or a religious text? Is it both? Neither?
There's more. A lot more. Parents might think that is a nice movie to watch with your kids, in that they could enjoy the fantasy imagery and they might learn about the book and it'll inspire them to pick it up and start reading. I'm telling you right now, this is not a movie for the kids. A good portion of the screen time is devoted the adult Carroll's, uh, "special relationship" with a family friend, 11-year-old Alice Liddell. We're told that Carroll proposed marriage to the girl, and that he took numerous nude photos of her and several other children. At this point, Gardiner argues that this behavior was more socially acceptable in Victorian England than it is today, and it was not considered Icky. The nude photos, he says, were not meant to be sexual, but a celebration of innocence. No matter how true that might be, I still couldn't get over the icky factor. And before anyone really freaks out, know that the movie doesn't actually show any of these photos, or any graphic content, it just talks about them.
Speaking of talking, the only voice we hear from is our director, pulling double duty as the movie's narrator. There are no "talking head" interviews with experts, or any of that sort of thing usually seen in documentaries. This is good, in that it doesn't interrupt the colorful, whimsical visuals. It's not so good, in that nothing is attributed. We're not told where Gardiner got any of his information. Carroll spent time among secret societies? He wore black gloves everywhere he went? He sent the queen one of his mathematic texts when she asked for another book like Alice? This is all interesting stuff, but with no attribution to any sources, audiences will be left wondering how much of it is true. Similarly, some of Gardiner's points seem like a stretch. There are twelve chapters in each book, so that just happens to a reference to the zodiac? How does Gardiner know this? What's to say it's not a reference to Twelve Apostles? Or the twelve tribes of Israel? Or the Twelve Days of Christmas? Or Ocean's Twelve? Or...
For this release, DVD Verdict received an advance screener disc which may or may not be the same as the finished product. The colors are bright and vivid, as they should be, and the sound is nice as well, especially the moody score. The highlight of the extras is an interview with Gardiner, in which he discusses the challenges of making the film. The complete Alice in Wonderland silent film is included. It's in very, very rough shape, but still kind of fun to watch, in that old-timey way. There are also a ton of trailers for other Reality Entertainment releases.
I've listed a lot of criticisms above, but the bad doesn't outweigh the good. I actually really enjoyed this movie. It's some interesting food for thought combined with cool, trippy visuals. If the subject matter interests you, for whatever reason, give this take on Alice a try.
On either side of the looking glass, not guilty.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Reality Entertainment
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 75 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Silent Film
* Official Site
* Video: Official Trailer