An Awesome Alice
By Janet Weeks
With a chessboard full of Hollywood's brightest and special effects from the Merlin magicians, this week's TV-movie looks like a winner Wonderland
A crowd has gathered to watch Martin Short fall. He is standing on a table at a London soundstage, a hat the size of a footstool roosting on his head. In a few minutes, he will burst into manic dance, skip among bowl-size tea cups, then belly flop off the table onto a mattress. The pratfall is the big finish to the Mad Hatter's tea party, a pivotal scene in NBC's $21 million, three-hour Alice in Wonderland. The crowd at Short's feet is one part crew needed for the shot, one part rubberneckers at what could be the scene of an interesting accident.
Short is nervous. He is no stranger to physical comedy; slapstick was his stock-in-trade on both SCTV and Saturday Night Live. But still, he's worried. Director Nick Willing, a dry-witted Brit who directed the 1997 feature "Photographing Fairies," tries to calm him.
"Now, we don't want to hurt you, that's the main thing," Willing says. Short nods, his bloated topper bobbing. But he is not reassured. He begins to recite his own obituary. "Martin Short is dead," he intones. "In a fluke accident, the beloved Canadian best known for his lovably weird characters…"
The crew laughs. Willing smiles. "Good luck, Martin," he says. "I won't say break a leg." The camera rolls. Strange, tinny music begins to play. Short dances to the edge, lets loose an exaggerated "Agggh!" and spills off the table. Then silence. Willing yells, "Cut!"
Seconds pass. Suddenly, Short pops up-hat intact-and glares menacingly. "You're all thinking I'm no good, aren't you?" he fake sobs. "To hell with you all! You try having limited talent and a straw hat!"
Madness, madness. Of course, a retelling of Lewis Carroll's classic Alice's Adventures in Wonderland should be nothing less than carefully choreographed lunacy. Written to amuse Alice Liddell, the child of a friend, it is the story of a girl's descent (literally, through a rabbit hole) from rational Victorian England into a topsy-turvy world where babies turn into pigs, flamingos and hedgehogs are instruments of croquet, and guinea pigs fill jury boxes.
"When I saw that the tea partyis 19 pages long, I thought, How will I remember? Nothing seems to make sense," Short says during a break, his hat gone but orange wig and blown-out-of-proportion latex nose and ears still attached. "But when you follow it closely, itdoes make sense. It's shifting realities. It's madness."
Madness that has proven irresistible to filmmakers over the years. The first screen version of the book-a British one-reeler made in 1903-was produced not long after the advent of moving pictures. At least a dozen other adaptations have followed.
What makes the silly story so attractive? For one thing, the myriad zany characters make for fun guest appearances, says Stephanie Lovett Stoffel, president of the Lewis Carroll Society of North America, an association of Carroll scholars. "It's just a natural for all-star cameos because everybody but Alice is a cameo." The 1933 Hollywood production featured a cavalcade of who was then who: Cary Grant, W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, Jack Oakie, Edward Everett Horton and Sterling Holloway, who 18 years later lent his distinctive, purring voice to the Cheshire Cat of Walt Disney's animated Alice. A 1985 Alice in Wonderland produced for TV by disaster-movie czar Irwin Allen boasted a cast that might have sailed in from Love Boat: Carol Channing, Harvey Korman, Steve Allen, Ringo Starr, Imogene Coca, Sammy Davis Jr., Merv Griffin, Louis Nye and Red Buttons. NBC's new take, produced by Hallmark Entertainment (Merlin, Gulliver's Travels, The Odyssey), follows suit with a cast that boasts Short (Mad Hatter), Whoopi Goldberg (Cheshire Cat), Gene Wilder (Mock Turtle), Sir Peter Ustinov (Walrus), Ben Kingsley (Major Caterpillar), Miranda Richardson (Queen of Hearts), Christopher Lloyd (White Knight), Pete Postlethwaite (Carpenter) and George Wendt and Robbie Coltrane (Tweedledum and Tweedledee). Tina Majorino ("Andre," Before Women Had Wings), 14, stars as Alice.
But even the big-name cast takes a backseat to even bigger special effects. This is the first Alice to exploit the hocus-pocus available in the post-digital-revolution era. The production is crammed with 875 special effects-serveral in every scene and nearly twice as many as in NBC's Merlin, last April's ratings-winning miniseries that was an hour longer. Short's head, for instance, has been magically enlarged to three times its normal size to resemble Sir John Tenniel's Mad Hatter illustration in Carroll's 1865 book. Short's tea party partner, the March Hare, is played by actor Adrian Gettley inside an elaborate head created by Jim Henson's Creature Shop, which also designed the Cheshire Cat, the guinea-pig jurors and the half-lion, half-eagle Gryphon. The tea party scene was shot inside a soundstage; the backdrop of sun-dappled woods was added later. Even the details have been gilded with FX dust-a pie sprouts crab legs, a cup spins on its own.
"We have the advantage of money," says Willing, referring to executive producer Robert Halmi Sr.'s generous budget. "It's like being a kid in a candy store. We are able to make Wonderland truly extraordinary. That makes a big difference because every scene has to top the one before."
"We have to do it this big or otherwise it doesn't work," says Halmi. "People have to be blown away." He hired Willing, a veteran of music videos and TV commercials, because the director is an expert in cutting-edge visual technology.
The imaginative sets include a courtroom made of giant playing cards, a hedge maze and a room-size child's pop-up book. "It's almost a hallucinogenic experience," says Willing of the movie's look, created by Merlin designer Roger Hall. (Hall also worked on the 1985 British film "DreamChild," about the memories of the real Alice Liddell.) "You feel you're actually there," says Willing. "It's like you've actually gone into another world."
Another world that is alternately frightening and funny, as Alice reels from the comedy of Tweedledum and Tweedledee to the over-the-top drama of the Queen of Hearts, whose famous line "Off with her head!" has been updated by writer Peter Barnes (Merlin) to "Chop. Chop. Chop. Blood everywhere. Makes you proud to be queen."
"We're making the spooky bits much spookier and the funny bits much funnier," says Willing. "We've amplified everything." The March Hare, with its freaky asymmetrical eyes, scared Majorino. "That showed Nick that it was a success because he wanted the March Hare to be creepy," she says. "When it's in your face, it's overwhelming."
Richardson's queen-the second weird queen she's played for producer Halmi-is equally overwhelming. Unlike Merlin's Queen Mab, for which she earned a Golden Globe nomination-"It was high campery and fantasy and all about telling a great story, although Mab was a bit of bimbo," she says-the Queen of Hearts is less an evil airhead than a brat. "There's no logic to hang on to. So what you hang on to is the rhythm of the scene," Richardson says. "It has to sort of crack along. But still, sometimes you think, What am I doing? I think that about 50 times a day."
Indeed, if there is a drawback to making a movie of Carroll's story it's the plot. "There isn't really a story at all," says Carroll expert Stoffel. "At best, the 'what happens' in Alice is that Alice learns not to accept things at face value and to take control." To compensate, Barnes's script adds a few scenes not in the book, including the opening, which shows Alice running away from her debut singing recital; she falls asleep in the woods and Wonderland is a dream that gives her the confidence to perform.
Majorino, who sings twice in the movie, says she, too, hates to sing. "When I had to do the scenes, I was just like, 'OK, I can do this.'" She also mastered a British accent and took etiquette classes. "Americans are so laid back and slouchy," says the Southern California teen. "But in Victorian England, little girls were brought up by duchesses who pestered them about correct speech and walk and manners."
Majorino also had to be mindful of special effects she couldn't see-a major chore for all the actors. Richardson, who was to play opposite the Dormouse, found herself yelling "Off with his whiskers!" to an empty seat because the creature wasn't functioning yet. "There's some point in the day when it all becomes gibberish, where you have no idea what you're saying," she said later. Short filmed several shots of a vaudevillian-type dance routine with his hat on backwards. Reluctant to redo the scene, he asked Willing, "If that's the best take, who's to notice?" Said Willing, "But we're enlarging your head so much…" "Oh!" interrupted Short. "My question was 'Who's going to notice?' and the answer is 'Millions and millions of people.' "
So the Mad Hatter returned to the tabletop for more folly. "You have to just kind of get used to the geography of the movie," says Short. "You get used to acting opposite someone wearing a huge March Hare head, for example. You just think, Well, that's today's assignment, huh? That's interesting."
Such merry mayhem. Such bizarre bedlam. Such a treat. On NBC's video bookshelf of lavishly adapted classics, the dazzling Alice in Wonderland ranks alongside the breakthrough Gulliver's Travels for its epic cascade of visual surprise, verbal wit and all-star enchantment. Tina Majorino is a marvelous Alice: solemn and intelligent yet playful and willful, lost in inner space ("It's all in the mind, child," she's told before her misadventures even begin) as she navigates a glossy dreamscape of warped perspectives and deranged characters. Stealing scenes with the same zeal they exhibited in last season's Merlin, Martin Short and Miranda Richardson outdo themselves as the ridiculously vulgar Mad Hatter and the shrill, petulant Queen of Hearts. "Everyone here is mad," says Whoopi Goldberg's coy Cheshire Cat. "It's only by chance and careful planning if you're not." An overstuffed smorgasbord of nonsensical conundrums and magical visions, this is one wondrous Wonderland indeed. -Matt Roush
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