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Alice in Wonderland: Free Press

Alice in Wonderland: Free Press

"Alice" is a wonderland of stellar actors and whimsical special effects



February 26, 1999

BY MIKE DUFFY
Free Press TV Critic

They sure didn't scrimp on the razzle-dazzle with "Alice in Wonderland."

The latest, exceptionally lavish production of Lewis Carroll's enchantingly daft children's classic overflows with electrifying eye candy.

A wondrous family treat, sprinkled with an all-star international cast and sporting a brightly colored, gee-whiz visual giddiness, "Alice" takes a three-hour roller-coaster ride through Carroll's wild imagination at 8 p.m. Sunday night on NBC. And it arrives happily pumped up on a $21-million budget, an amazing tapestry of gaga special effects and the merry wizardry of the Jim Henson Creature Shop.

"Alice in Wonderland" is the latest channel-surfing spectacular from Hallmark Entertainment producer and global village impresario Robert Halmi Sr. He has made splashy big-event literary adaptions his specialty in recent seasons with "Gulliver's Travels," "The Odyssey" and "Merlin."

But on the level of sheer digital visual magic, "Alice in Wonderland" is the most amazing Halmi spectacle yet.

The original story, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," written by Carroll in 1865, amusingly tweaked Victorian-era England in the fairy tale of a young girl who tumbles into a surreal, madcap world where logic doesn't exist. And where nothing is as it seems.

"Curiouser and curiouser," remarks young Alice, who is played to affecting, perplexed perfection by 14-year-old Tina Majorino ("Before Women Had Wings").

From the sublime to the whimsically ridiculous, Alice encounters a cockeyed menagerie of players that includes, among others, Martin Short as the Mad Hatter, Whoopi Goldberg as the Cheshire Cat, Peter Ustinov as the Walrus, Ben Kingsley as Major Caterpillar, Miranda Richardson as the Queen of Hearts and George Wendt and Robbie Coltrane as Tweedledee and Tweedledum.

They're all perfectly charming in their most peculiar, through-the-looking-glass fashion.

"Off with her head!" snaps Richardson's deliciously bratty Queen of Hearts to her strange young visitor.

"Stop losing your temper," admonishes Alice. "It's vulgar."

Rapturously odd and episodic, "Alice in Wonderland" explores a world where babies turn into pigs, cats crack wise and flamingoes are used as croquet mallets. It's a topsy-turvy universe, you see, where everyone seems to be utterly mad.

Especially the Mad Hatter, whose hellzapoppin' tea party features the rollicking Short in full dither, dancing and singing to a bonkers ditty, "Auntie's Wooden Leg."

There is also a divine musical moment with Gene Wilder as the Mock Turtle, singing the song "Beautiful Soup." A captivating childlike wonderment sparkles in Wilder's eyes as he warbles a heartfelt ode to soup "so rich and green, waiting in a hot tureen."

"Alice in Wonderland" has been smartly adapted for television by writer Peter Barnes ("Merlin," "Enchanted April") and lovingly directed by British filmmaker and special effects ace Nick Willing ("Photographing Fairies").

At times, eye candy overload may occur. But throughout, this sumptuous "Alice" is literate, rambunctious child's play for the whole family. It's a ton of colorful fun.

TV critic Mike Duffy can be reached at 1-313-222-6520, or send E-Mail to duffy@freepress.com.


OTHER LOOKS AT 'ALICE'

Hollywood has always been loopy for Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland." Some other film trips through the looking glass:

1933: Everyone from W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty to Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle traipsed though this short but slow-moving Hollywood all-star version of Alice's wonderland adventures. Gary Cooper, Edna May Oliver, Jack Oakie and Edward Everett Horton also starred.

1951: The free-wheeling animated Walt Disney take on the classic featured the voices of Ed Wynn, Jerry Colonna, Verna Felton and Sterling Holloway as the Cheshire Cat, along with such lively original songs as "I'm Late" and "The Unbirthday Song."

1972: A dull British rendition, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," swamped a classy cast that included Peter Sellers, Dudley Moore and Sir Ralph Richardson.

1985: Disaster movie impresario Irwin Allen ("The Poseidon Adventure") was responsible for this cockamamy television mishap, a collision of "Love Boat" caliber celebrities that included Sally Struthers, Red Buttons, Ringo Starr, Merv Griffin and Telly Savalas, plus Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme as Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Yipes.

'Alice in Wonderland'

3 out of 4 stars

8 p.m. Sunday
WDIV-TV, Channel 4, NBC

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