Lionsgate // 1998 // 86 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // March 2nd, 2005
Red Queen: You missed the soup and the fish. Bring on the joint!
Lewis Carroll was a great author whose singsong rhymes thrilled children and made adults curious to decipher their meanings. Like The Wizard of Oz, Alice's adventures in Wonderland have become a tale we're all familiar with from our childhood and often beyond it. Who can't quote at least some passage of the two books he wrote about Alice, whether it's Jabberwocky or the rhyme about Humpty Dumpty? At some point Alice became a pop culture icon that got attached to the drug movement, and her adventures took on an even more sinister presence as we all speculated if it wasn't the literary equivalent of a good LSD trip. Alice Through the Looking Glass is a 1998 production made for BBC television now making its way to American shores thanks to a Lions Gate DVD. It stars Kate Beckinsale (Underworld, Van Helsing) as Alice, and a host of great English actors taking on Carroll's characters from the second book. They seem to have a real sense of respect for Carroll's work, but do little to liven up the proceedings other than through some clever production design.
The plot is not much to describe. Alice returns to Wonderland through a mirror -- here we see Beckinsale reading to her child the Carroll story, and she enters through the mirror on her daughter's wall. It's pretty obvious this is a dream from the movie's narrative, which seems at odds with the ambiguity of the book (seems most adaptations make this error). Once inside Wonderland, Alice is involved in a giant chess game (at the urging of the Red Queen) and is trying to get to the final square so she can become a queen. Along the way, she meets a cavalcade of kooks and strange creatures including Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the White Queen, the White Knight, Humpty Dumpty, and the Jabberwocky. Everyone seems to recite poetry to her, and reality keeps shifting in curiouser and curiouser directions as the movie progresses.
The film is headed up by director John Henderson, who has a long list of BBC television productions under his belt. He plays up the dream quality of the story by making things appropriately trippy and never truly lucid. Alice's hairstyle changes in every scene, and a variety of film stock is used from digital to grainy black and white. It's the collage approach to disorient the viewer with many styles clashing up against one another. The actors seem to take their cues from Monty Python, playing everything severely British and dry. There's no camping it up with these folks, which is odd given how wacky and wild the costumes are. The Red Queen (Sian Phillips, Clash of the Titans) wears plenty of red plastic pleather, while Tweedledee and Tweedledum are reimagined as Clockwork Orange ruffians mixed with Willy Wonka Oompah Loompahs. The physical sets look like they are straight out of Tim Burton's school of design, and the exteriors are overgrown and wild looking. It's certainly handsome enough to look at.
Beckinsale does a fine job as "confused yet game to play" Alice. The role doesn't call for much other than curious pluck, which she has down pat. Ian Holm (the android from Alien) makes a nice White Knight who is appropriately dizzy and philosophical all at once. Sian Phillips portrays the Red Queen as a hip know-it-all who never questions her own authority. The rest of the cast are all British television stars who acquit themselves nicely even in ill-defined cameo roles that pop up all too frequently (this being Wonderland and all). The dialogue is the star here, and the actors stick pretty close to Carroll's words when they recite his poetry. Seems the pattern is Alice stumbles upon a character, they tell her an intriguing poetic tale, then do something mysterious, which leads her on into the next area to meet someone else. It just meanders along on nothing more than a song and a flourish of some pretty costumes.
It's a trippy well-acted affair, so I can't tell you why it seems so repetitive and awfully boring other than it repeats itself in some endless Mobius strip kind of way so you never know where you are in the story (not that it matters, we are as lost as poor Alice). Alice Through the Looking Glass is simply wacky costumes and British people spouting poetry for an hour and a half on colorful sets. Kids may find it boring, and adults will discover it's non-linear and not very engaging. I wouldn't say it's a bad interpretation of the story, just not one I'd recommend unless you are purely a fan of Carroll's text (there are some great readings of his poems). The transfer is a nice enough looking full screen affair without much hint of problems (other than it looks like a digital television broadcast), and the sound is the predictable stereo that suffices nicely (it mainly delivers dialogue). I wish there were English subtitles, because the accents are thick enough to make you wonder sometimes what was said, but alas unless you read Spanish, that is all there is to be found. I'm perfectly fine with the movie, but it did nothing special for me, so the best I can offer you is a shrug and a passing grade. It would be fine for a Sunday afternoon, or if you have more clandestine plans with your friends it might be fun to turn on in an altered state (maybe some of it would make more sense). Otherwise it just gires and gimbles in the wabe without much more than some authentic English accents and a nice enough transfer with no extras. Seems you need a book to be really blown away by Wonderland these days.
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Scales of Justice
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
Running Time: 86 Minutes
Release Year: 1998
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Lewis Carroll Society of North America