Try as he might, Judge Bill Gibron just couldn't connect with the mixed-up middle-school angst of this tween-friendly title character. Clearly, he's not mature enough.
Tween Life Sucks.
It's been six years since her mother died, but poor Alice McKinley (Alyson Stoner, Cheaper by the Dozen) can't quite get over her death. Her memories are fuzzy and starting to fade. Now she's being forced to move to a new town by her musician/music store owner father Ben (Luke Perry, John from Cincinnati). Along with her older butthead of a brother Lester (Lucas Grabeel, High School Musical), she will have to try and fit in with a new crowd and a new class. Unfortunately, instead of getting assigned to the cool teacher, Mrs. Price, she ends up with the notoriously difficult Mrs. Plotkin (Penny Marshall, Laverne and Shirley). Hoping to make friends, Alice joins the Theater Club, but when she ends up with a minor role in the school play, she figures that nothing will help her awkward social transition. Yet some advice from an unusual source will end up helping her acclimate. It will take quite a bit, however, to straighten out little Alice Upside Down.
Clearly conceived as the opening salvo in an eventual series run, Alice Upside Down takes the infamous junior novels by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor (consistently one of the most banned book series around the United States) and dilutes all the controversy from their pages. Instead, we are left with a whitewashed sad sack storyline about a young girl who's so whiny that she makes pre-weaned kittens seem self-sufficient by example. Gone are the tutorials about racism, sexuality, religion, and death. In there place are life lessons so simplistic that they turn natty Nickelodeon pap like Drake and Josh into something akin to American Beauty. The whole emphasis of this cinematic cotton candy is to make Alice suffer for her revelations. She can never learn by simply listening and adjusting her behavior. No, she has to wreck the school play, undermine her Dad's attempts at dating, and make her black friend Liz feel very uncomfortable. Let's face it—Alice is the queen of her own pity party, and we're lucky (or unlucky) enough to be the co-guests of honor. Being a tween in today's hectic society is indeed a tough slog. Alice Upside Down turns it into a Canterbury Tales of prepubescent muckups.
Part of the problem here is the approach. Instead of taking time to introduce Alice as a viable young girl with a serious subtext (mostly involving her dead mom), director Sandy Tung and screenwriter Meghan Heritage go for the easy answers. Our heroine's problems all stem from her familial disconnect, and the minute she realizes her Dad misses his wife as well, all is faux-forgiven. There are uncomfortable moments when little Alyson Stoner stresses her hound-dog looks, her face resembling someone who just found out she had terminal cooties. Her performance is pitched so far over into cloying that the Lifetime Channel is hoping to use her DNA to keep its own maudlin hanky horrors properly sappy. The humor is aimed directly at the shallow slapstick level of laughs, much of the cleverness here consisting of Alice spilling various foodstuffs on herself. While clearly a tone-deaf klutz, Alice is a character we are supposed to cheer on. Sorry, make that fellow underage gals are supposed to see a clever kindred spirit and support her no matter what. Sadly, this does not make for compelling cinematic entertainment—unless, of course, you're the Disney Channel.
There is so much that's generic and junky about Alice Upside Down that it's hard to pick out the bright spots. Penny Marshall's appearance as Mrs. Plotnik has a nice resonance—that is, until the script gives her a medical crisis to test Alice's newfound allegiance. Luke Perry looks realistically lost in dealing with his onscreen daughter's dilemmas. But then he turns around and rejects the advances of a successful former classmate because he has "too much on his plate." Huh? Perhaps the most endearing character is big brother Lester. With his kewpie doll face and slacker shaved head, he comes across as relatively well-adjusted. Sure, he picks on his sister relentlessly and is seen as kind of a womanizing sneak, but he also comforts Alice when she's down and does a good job of being there when the circumstances require. Lucas Grabeel, of High School Musical fame, does a good job of traversing his mandated territory quite well. Too bad everything else about Alice Upside Down couldn't be so casual and carefree. It's the perfect example of forced family fare.
Anchor Bay's DVD release of this direct to format title is pretty good. The 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen image is a tad fuzzy, and it looks like it was cropped somewhat (probably from a full-frame, ready-for-TV version of the film). However, the colors are consistently bright and there's a nice level of detail. Of the two audio mixes provided, the Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround is not very immersive. It does deliver a broader aural experience with the few songs offered than the standard Stereo 2.0 presentation (also available). As for added content, there is a pair of interviews which play like pedestrian electronic press kits. Both Ms. Stoner and Mr. Grabeel answer a series of mindless and obvious questions, each one showing some minor grace under pressure. A featurette on the "Costumes of Alice Upside Down" will only be of interest to the Bratz community. A collection of trailers rounds off the bonus features.
In a world where everything is demographically determined to play to the proper appreciative audience, Alice Upside Down is clearly meant for a more juvenile filmic focus group. One hopes, however, that even the most immature wee one would want something more substantial than this pat pabulum piffle. Guilty.
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