Alice in Wonderland: Star/News

Alice in Wonderland: Star/News

'Alice' is too wonder-full and effect-ed

By Steve Hall, Star/News Television Critic


Lewis Carroll would surely indulge in a Cheshire Cat grin at how reverently a new NBC movie treats his Alice in Wonderland.

Carroll whipped up his nonsensical adventures and punny wordplay to amuse a young English girl on their outings together. But the three-hour film (two and a half stars), at 8 p.m. Sunday on WTHR 13, approaches his creation with the sort of staid, don't-change-a-word seriousness normally reserved for someone like Tolstoy or Chekhov.

Curiouser and curiouser.

This fidelity is both good and bad. In previous TV versions, Alice in Wonderland has never enjoyed such a faithful retelling, strong international cast, visually arresting special effects and fanciful beasties (by the Jim Henson Creature Shop). Executive producer Robert Halmi Sr. (Gulliver's Travels, The Odyssey and Merlin) receives an "A" for effort.

But this Wonderland loses the playful spirit of Carroll, and it feels about an hour too long. If only director Nick Willing, best known as a special-effects wizard, could have have brought himself to cut in the editing room.

Borrowed from "Oz"

Tina Majorino (Waterworld) is Alice, who chases the White Rabbit down its hole and finds herself in a befuddling world. The major change from the book: Alice initially runs off into the woods to avoid singing "Cherry Ripe" at a gathering of family, friends and acquaintances -- who, in a Wizard of Oz-like turn, all become the strange denizens of Wonderland.

Whoopi Goldberg is a silky, enigmatic Cheshire Cat. (Computer technology superimposes her face on the cat's body.) Martin Short is a hilarious Mad Hatter, jumping on the table at his tea party to engage in a vaudeville song-and-dance number, Auntie's Wooden Leg, with the banjo-playing March Hare (an absurd Henson-created head superimposed on a human body).

Gene Wilder is the film's most poignant creature, the Mock Turtle, singing tenderly "Turtle Soup:" "Soup of the evening, beautiful soup! Beau-ootiful Soo-oop!"

Other notables in the cast include Ben Kingsley as the hookah-smoking Caterpillar (here, strangely, an Army major); Miranda Richardson as the screechy Queen of Hearts ("Off with their heads!"); Peter Ustinov as the Walrus; Christopher Lloyd as the White Knight; and Robbie Coltrane (Cracker) and George Wendt as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee.

The character designs and costumes closely follow John Tenniel's original illustrations for Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Sometimes this is visually bizarre, as when the head of Short's Mad Hatter is too big for his body.

Charming beasts

The mythical beasts look wonderful, from the flamingos used as croquet mallets to the Gryphon (half-eagle, half-lion). You'll particularly enjoy how the hedgehogs (used as croquet balls by the Queen's court) are cute, nervous little critters who tap their feet impatiently when the game is interrupted.

Except for adding the Looking Glass characters of the White Knight and Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, the script by Peter Barnes (Merlin) closely follows Carroll's first book. That includes its hallucinogenic scenes -- size-altering mushrooms, cookies and drink -- as well as such classic lines as "A cat may look at a king" and "Jam tomorrow, and jam yesterday, but never jam today," and a delightful, special effects-laden version of The Lobster Quadrille.

There's just too much of it. As the Duchess with the pig/baby remarks, "The more there is of mine, the less there is of yours." She could be talking about how this Wonderland sucks up three hours of our lives when two would do.

Star ratings: 4 excellent, 3 good, 2 fair, 1 poor.

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