Artisan // 1999 // 129 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Nicholas Sylvain (Retired) // September 23rd, 1999
A modern adaptation of a classic fairy tale.
A fine piece of family fare, if a bit slowly paced, Alice in Wonderland will dazzle you with its special effects, lush visuals, and very well appointed cast of actors, and a decently equipped DVD.
One of the many signs of health in the DVD market is the wide range of material that is coming to the format, including made for television movies such as Alice in Wonderland, brought to us by the same folks that did the well received Merlin (starring Sam Neill in the title role). Furthermore, it is this sort of movie (along with the impending appearance of classic Disney animation on DVD) that will expand the reach of our favorite format into more homes and families, which is something that will benefit all of us. Personally, I find a pleasant flick like Alice in Wonderland to be a nice break from much more serious movies that are my usual fare.
Just be forewarned, do not expect a close adaptation of the novel. In actuality, this movie is an amalgamation of the Lewis Carroll novels Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Beyond the Looking Glass.
We find young Alice (Tina Majorino) in a bit of a predicament. She has been picked by her parents to sing a song in front of their tea-time guests, but is balking at the prospect due to severe stage fright. Escaping into the nearby woods, Alice suddenly is confronted with a hyperactive White Rabbit who is most concerned about being late. Alice is intrigued, and when she follows the White Rabbit she falls quite a long way and finds herself deposited into a very odd sort of place where dimensions change quite unexpectedly. She finds herself trapped in a chamber whose only exit is a door much too small for her, but after some experimentation with the Drink Me drink and the Eat Me cakes, she manages to escape.
Unexpectedly finding herself swimming in a long underground canal, she grabs a hold of a passing mouse, who is in fact Mr. Mouse (Ken Dodd). He invites her along to meet some friends of his, and to attend one of his famous lectures. The lecture proves to be not nearly as entertaining as the staging of a "caucus race" where everyone cheats. (Any similarity to modern political processes is, I am sure, intentional.) Continuing her explorations, Alice explores a most remarkable book that becomes a house belonging to the White Rabbit. She can't leave anything alone, and so thanks to a mysterious vial of liquid she grows too large for the house and is again trapped. Before the White Rabbit and Pat the Gardener (Jason Byrne) can figure out what to do, Alice finds some small cakes which rather than shrink her properly leave her on par with blades of grass.
Wandering through nature at about a couple of inches in size, Alice comes upon a hookah smoking Major Caterpillar (Ben Kingsley) and chats for a bit about her real life and her present strange life. She discovers a way to grow back to normal size, and wanders her way into an odd castle-house filled with an equally odd Duchess (Elizabeth Spriggs), her grumpy cook (Sheila Hancock), and an enigmatically grinning Cheshire Cat (Whoopi Goldberg). Continuing on her way, she stops for a moment to get some words of advice and direction from the suddenly appearing (and disappearing) Cheshire Cat, who points her to the home of the Mad Hatter (Martin Short). Alice finds the Mad Hatter deep in an endless tea party, which looks very inviting to this thirsty and hungry girl. She gets no nourishment, but a plentiful supply of bizarre tea-time chatter and a couple of silly songs.
At last, Alice tires of the Mad Hatter, and journeys onward, this time finding her way smack into the middle of the grounds belonging to the shrill Queen of Hearts (Miranda Richardson). Her playing card retinue includes a dim-witted King of Hearts (Simon Russell Beale) and a screamingly funny, droll Jack of Hearts (Jason Flemyng). The Queen is quite fond of croquet (played with pink flamingo mallets and resigned hedgehog balls) as well as ordering a multitude of beheadings on the slightest whim. While Alice can't quite get her croquet equipment to cooperate, the sudden appearance of the Cheshire Cat's head disconcerts the royal retinue, prompting a short debate over whether a head floating in mid-air can in fact be beheaded?
Never in one place for too long, Alice finds herself lost in a maze of hedges, emerging to meet an educated Gryphon and his best friend, the Mock Turtle (Gene Wilder). This pair gives her some encouragement and sage advice on singing, dancing, and performing. Thanking them profusely, Alice wanders further onward, only to find herself in the middle of a fight, where the Red Knight (Gerard Naprous) is vanquished by the White Knight (Christopher Lloyd). Alice is happy to talk to this strange White Knight, who gives her a comically delivered lesson in the importance of courage and perseverance.
After the White Knight canters off into the distance, Alice resumes her journey until she is confronted by the slightly dense duo of Tweedledee (George Wendt) and Tweedledum (Robbie Coltrane). They put on a strange impromptu miniature play, starring the Walrus (Peter Ustinov) and the Carpenter (Pete Postlethwaite). When the duo falls to bickering, an eccentric battle is arranged to settle their differences. Needless to say, the pair can't even manage to fight each other, instead lapsing into a heap of exhaustion.
Having enjoyed the spectacle of Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Alice is brusquely summoned to the trial of the Jack of Hearts for stealing tarts from the Queen of Hearts. The trial is an amusing farce, based oddly enough on a lack of evidence, and it turns out to be a mechanism for displaying Alice's newfound confidence and poise. The inspired Alice comes back to the real world, waking as out of a dream, and goes to the tea-party with a spring in her step and her stage fright a forgotten memory.
As one would expect from a recent television production, the video is excellent. The picture is crisp and clear, with well-saturated colors, solid blacks, and good shadow detail. Digital enhancement artifacts are exceedingly minimal, dirt and blemishes non-existent, and video noise only an occasional distraction. In a couple of instances, flesh tones are washed-out by strong lighting, which is disconcerting if you are watching closely.
The extra content includes a selection of classic illustrations, extensive production notes, a nearly comprehensive bio & filmography section for the cast and crew, a trailer, and a section of notes detailing the origin of the Alice character and stories. Menus are movie themed and static, but the transitions are animated. Finally, you get a color insert with more production notes and an unusual keepcase that seems to be a close and perhaps superior cousin to the preferred Amaray keepcase.
As with Shakespeare, if you like the original literature (and you can tolerate a modern adaptation of its elements), then you should like the film. It doesn't necessarily make a lot of coherent sense, and can get a bit slow and tedious in spots, but it is an entertaining series of bizarre, unconventional scenes where the characters are prone to break into song. For a made for television movie, the special effects and creatures are very impressive, and only here and there does it look cheesy.
Though somewhat different than the Lewis Carroll Alice, I found Tina Majorino to succeed admirably at filling Alice's shoes. She has the most difficult role, as she is the one character present from beginning to end, and has to be serious and "real" without seeming stiff or humorless. If she chooses to continue her career into adulthood, she is primed to have a good run, I think. The rest of the cast has an easier time of it, with shorter and far sillier roles, but which on the other hand can seem to squander the acting talent with such limited opportunities. Just when you have recognized a famous face, it's off to the next one! I was very pleased to see Gene Wilder pop up again, and can only hope that Silver Streak comes to DVD sometime soon (sigh). One more note -- having recently reviewed Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels, I was surprised to see Jason Flemyng again, this time as the cheery, funny Jack of Hearts.
The audio is very unimpressive Dolby Digital 2.0. The dialogue is understood clearly, but I noticed very little use of channel separation in this very center-oriented mix. This seems to apply to the frequency spectrum as much as it does the sound placement, with little activity in the low end and the highs lacking a certain brightness. Overall, a more vigorous and rich sound would have helped the movie enhance the impact of its impressive visual effects, much as the right spice can make or break a gourmet dish.
If you are looking for some family-friendly DVD fare, or a light change of pace from your usual viewing habits, I recommend Alice in Wonderland for rental, and if you like it enough to buy, it's a ($20) steal!
The disc and Artisan are speedily acquitted, with the thanks of the Court for being so patient. Bring us more family fare!
Review content copyright © 1999 Nicholas Sylvain; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2013 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround (English)
Running Time: 129 Minutes
Release Year: 1999
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Cast and Crew Information
* Class Illustrations
* Production Notes