As it gets closer and closer to home video, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland has been seen as responsible for several things: the reevaluation of the director's once believed to be fading fortunes; the viability (or lack thereof) of 3D; Disney's ability to find a friendly place between cutesy kid fare and demographic irrelevancy; and an archeological style dig into the vaults of various production companies and DVD distributors, each unearthing their own tie-in take on Lewis Carroll's classic tomes. This time around we are treated to a made for TV musical extravaganza based on Alice Through the Looking Glass, the brain-busting sequel to the original Wonderland travelogue. Featuring fresh faced newcomer Judi Rollin, able accomplices Ricardo Montalban, Anges Moorehead, Tom and Dick Smothers, Jimmy Durante, and Jack Palance, and a score of songs especially composed for the show, it was a much beloved memory for many a '60s softee. Fast forward forty years, and its one of the clunkiest, clumsiest bits of unnecessary nostalgia you'll ever see. While it does have a couple of redeeming qualities, the rest of this overblown production is pure unprocessed cheese.
Forgetting that Lewis Carroll actually perfected this narrative a century before, Alice Through the Looking Glass modernizes the story to give us a perky if plaintive teen who wants some attention from her busy father. Unfortunately, he's in the middle of a big "adults" party and sends the child off to the study to read a book and play some chess. A couple of jump cuts later and we are being invited by the Red King to come through the mirror and experience life "on the other side" Alice does just that, and soon meets the rest of Wonderland's royalty - the Red Queen (not so nasty as before), the White Queen (a dithering idiot) and the White King (as suave and noble as rich Corinthian leather). After frolicking for a while, talking to flowers and avoiding actual live flamingos, she meets up with Lester the Jester (?), who vows to help her on her newfound mission of becoming royalty herself. But first, she must chat up Tweedledee and Tweddledum, trade tunes with Humpty Dumpty, and avoid the vicious nastiness of the monster-like meanie, the Jabberwock.
Maybe it's a severe case of Alice overload. Perhaps it has something to do with being so gravely disappointed by something one so dearly loved several decades before. Whatever the case, yours truly went into this fondly recalled NBC event with an open heart and equally open mind - and got screwed for it. Not necessarily for the reason you think, since it remains a totally typical TV type experience - colorful, cloying and loaded with sloppy Summer of Love sentiment. If one pill could make you larger and one pill could make you small, then the production the Peacock gave you here really doesn't do anything at all - at least, from a creative standpoint. It's a mess of mis-interpretation, misguided melodious bombast, and enough high kicking dance lines to get Tommy Tune excited. About the only element that retains any dignity - or sense of purpose - is the brilliant art design and sets. While maintaining a stagey three camera conceit, they come across as eccentric and slightly surreal. This is especially true when Alice discovers the Blue Road and starts her winding way across its painted backdrop dynamic on her way to Queen-hood.
Does that first part of that last sentence sound a tad familiar? Does the inclusion of a character named Lester the Jester, truly unknown to Carroll or his Rev. Charles Dodgson alter ego, bother you? If so, then you've got a primary reason why Alice Through the Looking Glass doesn't really work. This is an entertainment formed specifically to remind the audience of annual broadcast favorite The Wizard of Oz. Garnering huge ratings year in and year out, NBC was looking for another holiday themed perennial cash cow and thought anything Alice would do it. Of course, Carroll wasn't out to create crowdpleasers, so the network hired a couple of seasoned pros, gave them the bright and bouncy mandate, and the rest is pseudo ersatz Baum history. That doesn't mean this reinterpretation of an attempted adaptation succeeds. In fact, many of the audience friendly elements of this redux are so ridiculous and dull that it begs anyone believing in its ability for to become a special TV tradition. Even worse, the good vs. evil set up circumvents so much of what makes the Alice books magic that the result feels more like a limp fairytale instead of a surreal literary classic.
Even the "all-star" casting is subpar. Montalban maintains a certain level of viability, but Moorehead and her White Queen compatriot Nanette Fabray are the decided divas of endless mugging. Jerry Lewis would be jealous of the amount of facial farce these two deliver. Another plus is Palance, singing and prancing his way through a winged and tights take on the Jabberwock. One imagines the late great tough guy hiding the fact of his participation here from anyone buying into his one armed push-up persona. On the downside, Durante looks so old that all the king's horses and all the king's men could definitely not save him from a date with a nursing home, and Tom and Dick Smothers struggle to make sense out of the crappy "Backwards Alphabet" song they are given to sing. Indeed, all the tunes are terrible, lifted from the last dying gasp of a pre-post modern Broadway revue. Their rhyme scheme simplicity and hackneyed emotional ennui are enough to make you pray for Andrew Lloyd Webber, not sing along. Something so supposedly sunny and light shouldn't make you feel so sad and depressed when it's over. Alice Through the Looking Glass isn't fun or fresh. Instead, it's a dated attempt to mimic an already established classic - and it fails miserably.
Imagine a soft analog video presentation from four decades ago, give it the slightest color correcting tweak, and then polish it up to match a minimum code requirement for digital transfer, and you've got some idea of Alice Through the Looking Glass's 1.33:1 full screen image. While not horrible, it lacks a clarity and a depth that comes from being so old and antiquated. Unlike some TV shows from years past, which shine up nicely during the remastering process, what we have here looks like a rerun from a lost ghost broadcast signal. There are some good moments of close-up clarity, but for the most part, the long shots deliver nothing but visual vagueness.
Of course, there is nothing that can be done with basic network Mono, so Alice Through the Looking Glass doesn't really try. It takes the tinny, flat mix and passes it through two speakers and calls it Dolby Digital Stereo. Again, no one is expecting some faux 5.1 make-over, but when it comes to the format, the sonic situation shouldn't be so creative and commercial caveat emptor.
Producer Bob Wynn shows up for two differing featurettes that more or less cover the same ground. "On the Other Side of the Looking Glass" concentrates on the actual production while "Tells It Like It Is" is the standard career overview. While it would have been interesting to hear from Ms Rolin, or any of the still living cast members, the decision to let Wynn do all the talking is a wise one. Over the course of 15 or so minutes, he covers all the bases - from betraying Carroll, to his partnership with Alan Handley.
Not ever beloved performance from the past holds up in the light of a post-modern and millennial critique. Sometimes, a well-intentioned idea that worked within a limited timeframe or era shows its inherent weaknesses when removed from same. This is true of Alice Through the Looking Glass. No matter what the makers thought of its "Over the Rainbow" ramifications, it just doesn't hold up. Some will find it fun or wistfully intriguing, and for that, a rating of Rent It is offered. While Carroll devotees will definitely want to skip it, most (who, sadly, haven't read the original works) probably couldn't care less. What once hoped to become a tradition now looks tired and tacky in the present entertainment landscape. While that might be more of a reflection on what we find enjoyable in 2010, one thing's for sure - this take on Alice won't be rewriting the revisionist rulebook anytime soon.
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