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STUDIO: RHI/Hallmark Entertainment
RATED: Not Rated
RUNNING TIME: 134 Minutes
• Nothing, unless this is 1996 and you count scene selection as a special feature.
A 1999 direct-to-television version of the classic Lewis Carroll tale that beats out Tim Burton’s big-budget version with a little help from Jim Henson’s Creature Shop and a script that’s ten times more faithful to the source material.
Tina “Waterworld” Majorino. Robbie Coltrane. Whoopi Goldberg. Ben Kingsley. Christopher Lloyd. Miranda Richardson. Martin Short. Gene Wilder.
This is the stuff of my nightmares, folks.
Director Nick Willing, who helmed the grotesque miniseries reworking of Jason and the Argonauts in 2000 with Jason London, produced a version of Alice in Wonderland for NBC in 1999. It won four Emmy awards for its costumes, visuals, makeup and music, and is lined wall to wall with a star-studded cast, some of whom showed up to have a ball on elaborate sets, others who showed up to collect a pretty penny for a few days of work.
Can you guess which category Mr. Kingsley falls under?
“Just a few more tokes of this fine shit and those boondoggle keychains you keep trying to sell me on will sound way more appealing.”
Tim Burton should have learned his lesson from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory a few years ago, but instead 2010 witnessed the director making the same mistakes. His Mia Wasikowska/Johnny Depp version of Carroll’s original work (which combined elements of Through the Looking Glass as well) is a poor hybrid of bad ideas. Burton’s first mistake was to skew his characters older and to create a hack-and-slash adventure from what is essentially a lucid dreamstate of storytelling. His second mistake was to sandwich his twisty visuals with a computer-generated landscape in a story that doesn’t benefit from either of them.
These two fronts are where Willing and company knock the 1999 direct-to-television version of Alice in Wonderland out of the park. While the film does layer certain elements of Carroll’s sequel tale onto the original, what we see here is as thorough and faithful of an adaptation of the book as we’re ever to see on screen, including Disney’s animated classic. While that comes with some downsides (more on those later), it means that Alice’s character is preserved and all of the movements of Carroll’s novel are intact. No Vorpal sword/Jabberwocky Dungeons & Dragons-esque boss-battles here, thanks.
Behold the offspring of Wilford Brimley and Alice Krige.
Even better is the Emmy-winning visual aesthetic of the film. There’s a fine line between fantastical and inaccessibly dull, and I would hope that Burton learned this difference in March. While his version of Wonderland is by far more elaborate and expansive than Willing’s (whose entire film is set-bound), is has all the magic of a Windows 95 screensaver, completely separate and distinct from the characters that populate it. Willing uses digital work here as well — albeit digital work that looks as good as you’d expect for 1999 — but not to create the world, only to enhance it. Instead, we’re treated to elaborate sets and miniature work that actors are then digitally composed into. While never looking quite real (and it shouldn’t), the tangible quality evokes the fantasy more than Burton’s world could ever hope to.
Jim Henson’s Creature Shop created many of the elaborate costumes and puppets for the film, some of which work quite well in the context of things — I particularly enjoy the Twilight Zone-esque version of the March Hare and the Gryphon, which looks like something directly out of The Dark Crystal. Others are purely horrifying or uncomfortable, like the little flesh-nugget hedgehogs or the grotesque Pig Baby.
My major bone of contention with the film is the pacing: at 136 minutes, many moments of the film feel completely unnecessary and conversations drag on for far too long. While I was generally pleased that Alice in Wonderland was so faithful to its source material, that doesn’t mean the film couldn’t have easily lost twenty minutes of material in the editing room.
There are no words. Actually, yes, there are two: cerebral hemorrhage.
The rest of the film lives and dies by its actors. Leading lady Tina Majorino, who most folks will probably know best as Napoleon Dynamite’s bubbly gal-pal, has the right curiosity and look for the role, but is paired with a pretty foul accent and a ceaseless narration — it’s as if the producers felt the audience would change the channel if there was a second of silence, so the film is wall-to-wall noise and dialogue, which is quite exhausting. It’s intriguing to see the rest of the interpretations of the characters though, for better or for worse. Christopher Lloyd is basically doing his usual Doc Brown thing as the White Knight, while Martin Short is actually hysterical as the Mad Hatter, leaps and bounds better than Johnny Depp in the same role.
Miranda Richardson as the Queen of Hearts, however, is a shrieking calamity, and her presence on screen murders fun. Ben Kingsley appears as the Caterpillar for only a few minutes to be completely bored and flat, while Whoopi Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat is her usual obnoxious self.
A few words have to be said about Gene Wilder as the Mock Turtle, however. Alice in Wonderland is credited as his last role to date in a feature film, and could likely be his last. Even when given only a few things to do in the simplest, stupidest role — as a man with a turtleshell on his back — he reminded me of why he has been such a magnetic and hilarious comedic presence in his career. If the film is worth seeking out for any reason, it has to be the seven minutes he’s on screen.
There are no special features on the DVD, nor are there any foreign language options, making it even more apparent that this release is a cash-in on the media frenzy behind Mr. Burton’s take. Also, it’s the standard version as it was presented on television, so no widescreen for you.
But don’t let that fool you: between this film and the one that came out in March, this is far and away the better option.