TV Review: Alice In Wonderland (1985)

Posted: March 4, 2010 in Movie Review, Reviews
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Alice in Wonderland (1985 Irwin Allen Productions Dir. Harry Harris)


Produced by the TV visionary, Irwin Allen, this musical adaptation is strangely accurate while still slightly annoying. If you’re under 25 and you’ve seen this, then you probably saw it as a four-hour single block on cable, or a three-hour single sitting on video. As a result, you have no idea the kind of event this was the first time. Of course, if you’re under 25, then joint problems, the need for pants that stretch and sleepless nights for no good reason are probably a long way off in your future and I hate you. Suffice to say though this was first shown as a mini-series special on CBS. The TV miniseries is something of a rare beast now and has been since the end of nineties, but in its day, it was one of the major draws of Television.


See, there was a time between the mid seventies and the late eighties where the Mini Series was really and truly king because it offered two things rare in film and rarer still in television. It offered time and closure. You could tell a complete story, with a beginning, middle and an end, but you could tell it over several nights, which gave the story room to explore a bit. Most books get cut into little tiny chunks to be movies, and most of those chunks are discarded for time. Even a book with a dedicated director who wants to show the book instead of making a huge number of changes has to cut the book down to fit it into the time restraints of theatrical release. The multi-night format could greatly improve a decent movie of the week and turn it into something really worth watching.


In a mini series, you could keep much more of the book intact, with only a few restraints for tone and pacing. There are a few other problems as well, and we’ll address those later, but one of the chief ones is money. A mini-series would be given more money than an average TV series, but far less than any theatrical release. As a result, they fall into an odd place where they look sort of cheap, but better than most things produced for TV. You couldn’t do expensive car chases, or lots of gunfights, but you could have a bigger set and more impressive stars. Quite often, it was a place for someone to prove that they had some acting chops that maybe people hadn’t seen before. If a comedy actor wanted to do dramatic stuff, a mini series was a good place to show off. Anyway, enough about the mini series as a whole (when I do another mini series review I’ll address problems cogent to each production) let’s talk about this one.


The first problem anyone has in trying to adapt Alice’s Adventures is that they aren’t really novels in the classical sense. They are distractions, abstractions, and little else. In fact, doing a list of the Alice books, you could use the model of the description of the universe from Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Let’s try it, in both headings and footnotes. Story: None. Alice enters an absurd world, experiences a few disconnected vignettes and wakes up. That’s the basic description of both books. There is no cohesive narrative that ties the story together. Characters: None. Alice is little more than a witness, or at best a reporter. She asks a few questions, tries to understand, and then goes to the next station. She doesn’t have any kind of character arc or over arching storyline. She just experiences things and movies on. Political or scientific significance: None. Well, actually, that might not be true. Some researchers suggest that it’s full of scientific theory and is as politically significant to it’s time and place as Dante’s Divine comedy (P.S. If you think that book is just about heaven and hell, you need to read it again. Or perhaps, read it to begin with.) but the significance has long since been argued about since it might have just been John Tenniel’s drawings that suggest things. Either way, it’s not really significant now. Sex: None. Well, again it depends on who you ask, but it’s not worth embarking on a long discussion about it now because it’s all terribly complicated.


One of the things that makes this slightly annoying is the make-up. It’s the very specific style of make up I like to call “Don’t cover the famous face” which is peculiar to all-star productions like this. They paid a lot of money to get some of these people, and they want to show off that they have them. So quite often they’ll work around their features to make sure that they expose as much of the star’s face as possible so people will know them at a glance. That and some of the songs make this production slightly irritating, but also fun. But this has already gone on quite a bit, so maybe I should cut the review into separate pieces. We’ll get to the actual show tomorrow.


Well enough back story, lets get into the special itself. I won’t try to run down the entire story, because it follows the book pretty closely. I’m just going to touch on some of the more notable parts for this version. Part one covers the events from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It presents us with a weak frame story in that Alice wants to join the adults for tea, but is still considered too much of a child. Saying the frame is weak does not mean I think it’s a problem. Actually, if anything, the weaker the frame the better. We don’t want this weighed down by reminders of the added plot, we just want to have a good time. We can do that here, it’s not a problem.


The show is a little slow to get going, and the opening 15 minutes or so more or less requires Natalie Gregory to carry the whole thing on her own. Fortunately, even though she’s just sitting in a room talking to herself, she does okay. She manages to muddle her way through the whole “Drink Me” and “Eat Me” things without being too irritating. For a musical, there isn’t much music for a while. We’re almost 19 minutes in before the first song, which is mouse that was supposed to be French in the book but isn’t here. And what an odd little number it is. It’s like someone said “Let’s take the most adorable 8 year old you’ve ever seen and put her in an insane asylum for furries.” The White Rabbit’s house is unremarkable, except for the fact that I just mentioned it. Alice runs through the set made up of fake flowers and pot plants until she gets to the mushroom of the caterpillar, played by Sammy Davis Jr. It’s one of the few times Alice gets to dance with any of the other characters besides just linking hands and skipping in a circle. They both dance pretty well here, which is nice. Actually, watch it over, it looks like Natalie Gregory actually really enjoyed working with Sammy Davis Jr. here. There is some real joy in her face when they dance together. It looks like he’s enjoying working with her as well, which is nice.


There’s the bit with the Duchess, played by “Big Mouth” Martha Raye, for once not doing a Polident commercial. That’s one of the problems I have with this production. This is an all-star cast, but only for people of a certain generation. A lot of these people were elder statesmen of TV and movies, people my parents should know. Why have an all star cats like this for a kids movie? Even I don’t recognize half these people and I’m awesome at the “Who is that?” game. I can normally recite the resume of actors that no one else has ever heard of, but this movie gives me trouble. Imogene Coca may be known to any fan of Sid Ceaser’s Your Show of Shows, but to me she was just an old woman playing the Cook against the denture lady’s Duchess.


Anyway, we get the scene with the Cheshire Cat, as played by Telly Savalas. Now, this is epic. Savalas is genuinely creepy, and it’s up to you to decide if it’s a good thing or not. Savalas MAKES it creepy. To start with, Savalas was so invested in being bald, he wouldn’t let them cover his baldness in his makeup. So you’ve got a guy in a fur suit, with fake fur cover three quarters of his head, but his bald top is shining like a beacon to Seti Alpha 5. Now, imagine he’s singing a song that essentially is saying Alice will never get home, will never enjoy innocence and will never know joy or love again. Whe he leaves Alice, he ends his with an adaptation of his signature phrase by shouting “MEOW Baby!” And then I laughed so hard I slid off the couch and howled with laughter on the floor for a two full minutes. That might not sound like much, but try laughing as hard as you can for 120 seconds. I’m not joking, I laughed so hard I could feel the blood rushing to my head as my face grew darker and darker. I actually had a moment where I knew if I didn’t stop I would soon burst a vessel, and yet I was helpless. How those two little words had such an effect, I don’t know. I’m beginning to think this was a strange experiment by some dark government force, trying to see if Americans could withstand total insanity.


Then you’ve got the Mad Tea Party, a bit where Alice sings a song to a faun that often gets cut out of cable showings, Alice arriving in the garden, the cards painting the roses, then they find the queen. The Queen, the queen, here comes the queen! The croquette starts, and that’s all well and good too. I’m not mentioning every single song, because there are quite a few of them. I’ve also not mentioned that the entire production, save for two scenes are performed solely on soundstages. Not that it’s a problem, it’s just a fact. Anyway, they play for a moment or two and then the disembodied head of Telly Savalas shows up like a god looking and judging over all. If there was a reason to be scared of this movie, it’s the floating head of Telly Savalas.


Alice leaves the party to see the Mock Turtle, but before she does she sees a baby goat. She gets the baby goat, and then has a moment with a chimp. Why a chimp? No idea. I guess they were getting animals at the zoo and he wasn’t busy that day. They had a chimp and by gum they were going to use him! Anyway, then she meets the Griphon, which is played by Sid Ceaser despite the fact that they had Merv Griffin in the cast. Missed opportunity for a joke there if you ask me. They meet the Mock Turtle, who is sad here because he was nobody’s favorite Beatle. ‘Cept mine. Ringo Starr is my favorite Beatle because he was in The Point. There’s a reason John and Paul did all the singing.


Anyway, we get the trial, we get Alice growing and arguing with everyone and then she fights with the cards before flashing to what must be the fakest leaves I’ve seen covering the heroin of a fantasy movie for some time. Alice then runs toward the house, which is clearly just a nice house in California. No matter where they want to claim where or when this takes place, that’s a mid-eighties house in California. Alice running across the lawn is one of those two outside scenes I talked about. Alice then finds herself in the house all by herself, which turns out to be Looking Glass House. She finds herself trapped in there, so she sits down and reads the Jabberwocky poem, and finds it shows up to scare the crap out of her. This leads to the end of Part One and the credits. We’ll get to Part two in a bit.


ANYWAY! That’s the end of night one, let’s look at night two…


So at the end of episode one, Alice was having the bejezzus scared out of her by the Jabberwocky. This is sort of recapped for a moment, before Alice interacts with the chess pieces. We then hear from one of the invented characters f the show. There is an owl who explains that the Jabberwocky is a manifestation of her fears. He also explains that she has to learn to control her fear and master her anger so she can control the force and become a Jedi knight. She puts the big helmet on and plays with the remote to learn about the lightsaber for a while before wandering off to meet some flowers. Just a moment while that’s going on, let me point out I live blogged this on my twitter feed. I was live tweeting a 25-year-old TV movie. How’s THAT for time shifting? Next thing you know, I’ll be writing extensive reviews about said 25 year old movie and… oh Nevermind.


Anyway, the production values were greatly improved for the second night. At least it seems so to me. The sets look bigger, the design is a little more impressive. I sort of wonder if the studio didn’t get a look at how Wonderland went and decided to give the producers a bit more money to work with to make Looking Glass that much better. The crown for the Red Queen still looks like a spray painted Styrofoam round with an upturned flowerpot on it though. Still, for a TV production, this was clearly very expensive and extravagant. Aaaand then a toy train comes in and calls me a liar by looking just like a toy train. We’re still pretty much going by the book though, so the argument she has with the ticket collector, the man in the paper suit, the horse the goat, the chef, the thief his wife and her lover is pretty much right off the original pages. Only in this version, Alice didn’t have to pose for nude photos for the delight of a pervy conservative.


So then Alice goes to see the Tweedles, who give her a bit of song and dance before singing The Walrus and the Carpenter, which is one of the only poems to actually be translated into song. Quick question: Who is more evil, the Walrus or the Carpenter? The walrus expressed some regret, but he also ate more than the Carpenter did. The Carpenter ate as many as he could though. Who is less evil? Are they equally evil? Why doesn’t this version examine the dark heart? Is it because it’s the eighties and we hadn’t gotten into grunge yet? You can’t do things this unabashedly light hearted these days, you have to make them all mean and scary and give Alice a big knife to kill everyone with. I really hate legacy that the nineties left us with. Yeah, I know. Screw grammatical correctness. It doesn’t much matter, because we’re about to get The White Queen.


Good lord, every second Carol Channing is on screen is pure gold! I’m sure she wasn’t actually drunk, but she plays it like the queen’s veins are full of nothing but gin. You could just pour her into a glass and drink her over ice. It’s like she didn’t even know she was acting this day. She showed up thinking she WAS the White Queen. She sings the greatest song and does and awesome dance. It’s like watching someone have a choreographed fit. Then she turns into a sheep. Not joking, she just suddenly turns into a sheep! In the book, this leads to something. In this, the sheep just sort of walks off.


Then Alice walks down the same little piece of path she’s walked down 37 times in the last two hours. Then, after being chased by a vulture for no good reason, she comes across Humpty Dumpty (pronounced with an Umpty). Now, are you ready for a shock? The Jabberwocky shows up and flat out, stone cold, up and murders Humpty! He gets all up Humpty’s grill and shoves him off the wall, and we hear a crunch sound like an eggshell cracking and the contents spilling onto the ground. The Mad Hatter shows up later and pours out a forty of Earl Gray out on the spot for his fallen bro. The Jabberwocky then chases Alice around for a while to no good purpose. He’s not much of a villain, and slows down the show every time he shows up.


Doesn’t matter, because Harvey Korman and John Stamos show up. Korman looks like he’s on something and Stamos is FABULOUS(!) what with all the sparkly sequins on his costume. They entice Alice to come watch The Lion and The Unicorn fight it out. They insist, and in a little while she joins in because Alice is pretty easily swayed frankly. Although, she may be doing it just because it’s easier than fighting with them, since she does seem to be rolling her eyes in part of the song. Doesn’t matter because we quickly get to the combatants. In his Unicorn make-up, Beau Bridges looks like Eddie Izzard, or possibly Priss from Blade Runner. Not that it matters much, the bit with the White Knight comes along and distracts us for a moment or two. I think I know why so many people like The White Knight in this story. He’s the only person who is always nice to Alice. Everyone else in the story insults her, criticizes her, or otherwise makes her feel bad. The White Knight is nothing but kindness though. The last point between the knight and Alice is him asking her to wave her handkerchief at him as he leaves to encourage him. The White Knight is right. All the finest maidens do wave to encourage knights on their way. Remember that girls, give your knight a nice wave now and then.


Then Alice becomes a queen and the other two queens show up and sing at her. And then they sing and sing and then just the Red Queen sings and sings… I guess they had her for the day and decided to use her. Three songs are sung in one little section and it gets a little tiresome. You do sort of get to the point of shouting “Cripes! Is the Red Queen still singing?” and then the party starts and so does the tedium. Sorry to be a downer, but this movie doesn’t end well. Once the party gets started, a bunch of characters from both nights show up and sing, and then the Jabberwocky shows up and chases Alice around for ten minutes. I think I’ve lost serious sanity points watching this. I am *this* close to failing a saving throw. In the end, she makes it back to her mother’s sitting room, tells the Jabberwocky to piss off. She does this by proving she’s grown up, by lying about not being afraid despite screaming in terror only a few moments ago. Anyway, it doesn’t matter because the lies prove she’s grown up and monster vanishes. After that, Alice’s mother comes in, tells her she can have tea and the movie fades to black. That’s pretty much it. I said it was a weak frame at the start, didn’t I?

Official Score:
12 Degrees on the Graffiti Bridge Scale.

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