Released on Blu-ray and DVD (not so coincidentally, I'm sure) to coincide with the theatrical release of Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland, Nick Willing's Alice was originally made as a TV mini-series but finds a second life thanks to the wonders of home video and cross-marketing tactics. This reimagining of Lewis Carroll's classic literature is centered around a woman (not a girl) named, you guessed it, Alice (the oddly attractive Caterina Scorsone), who works as a karate instructor. When we meet her, she's sheepishly put off by the surprise proposal from her boyfriend, Jack Chase (Philip Winchester). Completely unaware that the ring he has offered her, and after her rebuttal snuck into her pocket, has a secret importance. When she realize he's in trouble she chases a man with white hair (Alan Gray) through the streets of whatever unnamed city she lives in smack dab into a giant mirror (or, if you prefer, looking glass) which transports her to Wonderland.
Upon her arrival, she learns that the Wonderland she's been transported to isn't quite the same as it was when the original Alice visited, making this kind of a sequel to Carroll's book in the sense that it takes place after it. Regardless, Alice wants to find out what happened to said boyfriend and soon winds up enlisting the aid of a player named Hatter (Andrew Lee-Potts) who, after showing her around the underground library, brings her up to speed on what's happening here and how she figures into it all. The Red Queen (Kathy Bates) and her dopey boy-toy (Colm Meany) have more or less taken over, sucking people into her casino where they feel nothing but bliss and happiness but no real emotions, while an underground uprising lead by Dodo (Tim Curry) will do whatever they can to bring it all down and restore some semblance of actual humanity to the place. With some help from Hatter and the White Knight (Matt Frewer), Alice soon realizes that the ring she has controls the looking glass which serves as the portal to this world and as such makes her invaluable to certain parties. From here on out the chase is essentially on, with the Queen and her denizens out to get Alice and Alice out to get her boyfriend back, though there are some solid twists supplied along the way...
Setting the story in the odd futuristic setting in which it plays out is going to irk some folks right off the bat. This isn't the Alice In Wonderland you read as a kid, instead it's a world where the White Rabbit and his pals fly around in a scarab shaped space ship and where the action takes place in a cityscape elevated hundreds of feet off of the ground. Much has been changed here, from Alice's hair color to the levity afforded certain characters both minor and major. Anyone looking for a literal and traditional adaptation of the source material that the movie takes its name from would do well to skip this one, pretend it never existed.
That said, if you're open to a new take on some very familiar material and don't necessarily need things to be as literal as they have been in the past, Alice is worth seeing. First and foremost, the acting is quite good. Caterina Scorsone is quite good in the lead, playing her role with just the right mix of confusion, innocence and slightly irritated bitchiness to make it her own while Andrew Lee-Potts makes for a strong Mad Hatter type (and he's far less offensive to the eyes than Depp's character in Burton's adaptation). Bates is cast perfectly as the Red Queen, bringing just enough heaviness to the part to make it work while fun supporting roles from the likes of Colm Meany and Matt Frewer round things out nicely. Some of the reinterpretations of the original ideas expressed in the books are fleshed out well and given an interesting new life here, while the character and set design somehow manages to remain true to the spirit of that which inspired it.
On the flip side, there's a lot of CGI here. A LOT. Parts of the feature feel like a video game come to life and not in a good way. Backgrounds are constantly looking fake and entirely computer rendered while CGI beings such as the Jabberwock look phony and lifeless. Some erratic pacing (the film is over three hours long, though keep in mind it was intended as a SyFy miniseries before it hit DVD and Blu-ray) also results in some scenes feeling padded and unnecessary. Ultimately, however, there's enough here that works to make this worth a look. It's not perfect, in fact its flaws are obvious, but the good stuff really shines and if it doesn't completely redeem everything that happens on screen, it does come close.
Alice falls languidly onto Blu-ray in an AVC encoded 1080p 1.78.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer flip flops back and forth between moments of impressive detail and clarity and moments of poor detail and fuzzy visuals. Much of the eccentricity of the image seems to stem from the CGI that is running rampant throughout the production. Some shots look remarkably crisp and detailed and show off very fine texture and near perfect visuals, while the next shot will look soft, flat and completely fake. Colors vary wildly from one scene to the next, with the scenes that take place inside the casino looking nice and bright and bold while the scenes that occur outside look dirty, flat and dull. You'd think this was all on purpose save for the fact that the skin tones of the actors and actresses employed in the picture vary accordingly. There aren't any problems with mpeg compression artifacts or nasty edge enhancement problems but the image has a weird periodic shakiness to it that is both distracting and irritating. What you're left with is a picture that fluctuates between excellent and horrible with fairly reckless abandon.
The English language DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio track on this disc, which comes with subtitle options in English and Spanish and closed captioning in English, is quite good. There isn't quite as much surround activity as you might have hoped for during the more action oriented scenes (the bit with the Jabberwock being a prime example, and the scene where Alice falls through the looking glass being another) but surround and rear channel activity is quite frequent. Bass response is decent, even if it could have been stronger in spots, while the levels are generally quite well balanced and clear. Dialogue is always easy to understand and free of any hiss or distortion while the score has a nice bounce to it. This isn't demo material by any stretch, but it sounds decent enough.
The packaging doesn't list it anywhere, but there is a commentary track hidden away on this disc. You won't find it in the extras menu, there's only a bookmarking option there, but if you check out the sound options menu you'll be given the chance to listen to the track courtesy of star Catharine Scorsone and director Nick Willing. It's not a track that will 'wow' you but if you want to know what was going through their brains while they were working on this project, it does the trick. They obviously enjoy one another's company and while it would have probably made for a more interesting talk had they gone into detail about the influences, intent and ideas they were trying to get across with this revamp of the classic on which is it very loosely based, it is at least a pleasant talk. Not a particularly fascinating one, but yeah, it's safe and nice and inoffensive. Aside from that, there's the aforementioned bookmarking option, menus and chapter selection.
Alice alternates between a really creative reimagining of some classic source material and some ridiculously bloated and padded filler. There are moments here that are great and those with an affinity for Carroll's source material will enjoy some of the more obscure references - in short, it's worth seeing - but Lionsgate's Blu-ray is mediocre at best, making it hard to wholeheartedly recommend. Play it safe and give it a test drive before you plunk down money for this one. Rent it.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.