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DVD SAVANT

Alice in Wonderland


Alice in Wonderland
Home Vision Entertainment
1966 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 80 min. / Street Date 2003 /
Starring Anne-Marie Mallik, Wilfrid Brambell, Peter Cook, Finlay Currie, John Gielgud, Michael Gough, Wilfrid Lawson, Alison Leggatt, Leo McKern, Malcolm Muggeridge, Michael Redgrave, Peter Sellers
Cinematography Dick Bush
Art Direction Julia Trevelyan Oman
Costume Design Kenneth Morey
Film Editor Pam Bosworth
Original Music Leon Goossens, Ravi Shankar
From the novel by Lewis Carroll
Written, Produced and Directed by Jonathan Miller

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Jonathan Miller's 1966 BBC adaptation of the Lewis Carroll novel was perhaps the first production that didn't treat Alice's journey down the rabbit hole as a children's story. Shot in dreamy B&W and populated by a stellar group of English actors, Miller's attempt to capture Carroll's whimsical poetry is a lesson in creative adaptation, and worthy of study by Carroll scholars.

Synopsis:

Alice (Anne-Marie Mallik) leaves her sister on a warm afternoon to follow the White Rabbit (Wilfrid Brambell) into a strange fantasy world. Logic and sensibility are absent in a strange land of uncommunicative and opinionated creatures ruled by a Queen whose petulant solution to minor annoyances is to order heads to be chopped off. Despite the provocations, Alice sticks to her own way of seeing things.

This version of Alice starts out looking more like Picnic at Hanging White Rabbit, if Peter Weir had shot anything in B&W. Alice and her sister have their hair brushed and then walk out to lie down in a fertile-looking grassy area, in the hot sun. They're more like nubile young nymphs awaiting adult adventures than children's heroines. A bit of classical poetry about dreaming is heard (not Carroll's), further cueing us that Miller wants this to be a dream, and not some mid-60s drug trip version of the tale.

Ravi Shankar provides an interesting score that adds to the oddness of the journey instead of evoking thoughts of a guru-inspired mind trip. A blast of percussion cues the entrance of Wilfrid Brambell's 'white rabbit' character, and the chase is on.

The show uses some open countryside and what appears to be an abandoned estate for its setting, but embellishes the tale only with quaint costumes. In this literary version, the fantastic content is in the text - all of the animal and insect creatures of the story are simply people in exaggerated period costumes, as if their names - Dormouse, Gryphon, Caterpillar - were code words. Only the Cheshire Cat is a real cat, glimpsed like an apparition in the sky.

The words get all of the emphasis. Alice is a rather inexpressive girl directed in a way not to garner sympathy or attention as the heroine. She's simply the cypher for experiencing the maddening characters in Carroll's twisted tale. Big name talents are submerged in their roles, and the odd atmosphere doesn't leave room for star recognition effects. John Gielgud and Michael Redgrave make their way through their readings of Carroll's puzzling prose. Finlay Currie has a brief appearance. Leo McKern is hilarious playing the 'Duchess' in huge dress, and not even altering his voice! People looking for Peter Sellers in a comedy turn will be disappointed - he's simply a passive appendage to the procession of the Queen of Hearts (Alison Leggatt) and makes an observation here and there.

I've never seen a version of the Mad Tea Party that worked as well as this one, animated or live-action. 1 Michael Gough, Peter Cook and Wilfrid Lawson are three contrasting studies in boorish insincerity and bad manners, and are truly maddening by their attitudes and behavior - there's no Disney splashing of tea or other slapstick. Cook wears an insulting smile, and Gough is much more effective than usual, clenched up in a knot as if harboring some terrible grudge.

Alice rather passively tolerates the various snubbings, insults, and abuses from the mad inhabitants of Wonderland. When shown a headsman at the ready with his axe, she dismisses the Queen's order to chop off her head with a curt, upperclass 'Nonsense!' The oneiric threat never materializes. There's a bit of running about here and there, but the show doesn't end in the expected chaos - we simply return to two dreamy girls (with perspiration on their faces) in the hot countryside.


HVe's disc of Alice in Wonderland is a fine presentation of the shot-on-film English television production. There's a lot of delicate detail in the image, with the slightly washed-out exteriors particularly well captured. The sound is also very clear, which greatly helps understanding the clipped English dialogue. There aren't any subtitles to help with that, I'm afraid.

Fans and students of Lewis Carroll will be fascinated by producer-writer-director Jonathan Miller's commentary, which covers the entire production starting with his personal take on the story. He hated the animated versions and wanted to capture what he thought was the essence of the strangely modern fantasy tale that had so often been reduced to a pageant of bad costumes and hammy stars reciting lines they didn't understand. 2

There's also a brief stills gallery (name photographer Terence Spencer captured the stars on the set for Life Magazine) an essay by Carroll expert Wheeler Winston Dixon, and an eight-minute silent version of the story from 1903. It's a barely-surviving mess of nitrate disintegration, but is still technically impressive.

Pre-Python Eric Idle is said to be somewhere in the ensemble cast of this literary curiosity ... Here's hoping for more Region 1 BBC discs from Home Vision Entertainment.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Alice in Wonderland rates:
Movie: Good
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Director's commentary track, Behind-the-scenes stills gallery, Cecil Hepworth's 1903 version, essay by critic Wheeler Winston Dixon
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: December 11, 2003


Footnotes:

1. I did see a 1972 live-action version with good production values, when National General tested it in Westwood for a Saturday audience of kids. Peter Sellers was in that one two, I believe. The movie was pretty, but it just sat there, unexciting and creatively dead. I don't think it got much of an American release - the theater chain seemed to have used the 'preview' opportunity as a free outing for its employees' children - who were thoroughly bored.
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2. Ever seen the early 30's Paramount all-star version? ... it's also a static bore, even with designs by William Cameron Menzies. Alice would probably fare better reinterpreted rather than literally produced - as with Brazil, which is easily the best 'version' of George Orwell's 1984.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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