Tuesday, May 30, 2017


MYTHICITY: (1) *poor,* (2) *good*
FRYEAN MYTHOS: (1) *comedy,* (2)*irony*

An extreme Anglophile might assume, when presented with two musical films based on Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books, that the movie done with a British crew—including respected theater-thespians like Ralph Richardson—might do better in adapting the work of British author Carroll than the film with the American crew made up of somewhat schmaltzier performers like Martha Raye, Carol Channing, and Sammy Davis Jr. However, that hypothetical Anglophile would be wrong.

It’s always risky to re-think one type of narrative into another form. I noted in this review that Disney’s 1950 “Alice in Wonderland” is at best a fair knockabout-comedy version of Carroll’s darkly ironic fantasy, while the Tim Burton version was a fairly rousing action-heroine tale, though one that had nothing to do with Carroll’s narrative.

The problem with the 1972 film is that although it’s somewhat faithful to the plot of the first “Alice” book, the filmmakers chose, like Disney, to go the route of “funny ha-ha” rather than Carroll’s “funny-strange.” The “ha-ha” approach is hard to resist in adapting the vignette-structure of the Carroll books; it’s tempting to just unleash performers in goofy costumes, strutting their stuff as the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, and the Cheshire Cat. And for the most part that’s all the audience gets from the 1972 effort, directed and adapted by William Sterling. Ralph Richardson does his bit, Spike Milligan his bit, Dudley Moore his bit, but none of their antics are particularly witty, and the parts don’t add to a coherent whole. Fiona Fullerton gives the strongest performance as Alice, but she was about sixteen years old at the time, making her a bit long in the tooth for the role. Only once does Sterling draw upon the dark vision of Lewis Carroll; when Alice, once more reduced to insect-size, is menaced by a predacious crow. Since the film clearly had no money for special FX, Sterling simply resorts to editing shots of a real crow so as to give the illusion that it’s giant-sized. This cost-cutting stratagem usually yields bad results in giant-monster films. But because the crow-scene is so short and well edited, it’s the only time when one sees innocent Alice at the mercy of a mad and merciless cosmos.

The 1985 effort, directed by Harry Harris, appeared on network television as a two-part special, with each of the parts devoted to one of Carroll’s two “Alice” books. Whereas the books chronicle two separate dream-visits to Wonderland, the special never has Alice wake up from the events of the first book; she merely stays in Wonderland and begins to experience the events of “Through the Looking Glass.”  I didn’t reread the two books prior to watching the films, but my general impression is that Hamlin sought to keep the general order of events in both books, even though he creates a little new stuff along the way.

The most notable revision is that scripter Paul Zundel, after keeping most events of “Adventures in Wonderland” true to the original novel, gives the Jabberwock a major makeover. The Jabberwock, originally a monster in a poem that Alice simply hears recited, becomes a rubber-suit creature who appears to menace Alice and other inhabitants of Wonderland. Perhaps Zindel or someone involved in the project was uncomfortable with some of the abstruse philosophy that appears in “Looking Glass,” and so wanted a more traditional plotline, one which makes the Jabberwock the incarnation of Alice’s juvenile fears. This is fairly banal pop psychology, but it’s interesting to speculate that someone involved with the Burton version might have seen Harris’s effort, and thus chose to make up another type of Alice-Jabberwock conflict in the 2010 film.

Although this Alice is subject to a little more psychoanalysis than other versions—she’s impatient to be considered a grownup, for example—the Harris version at least gives viewers a seven-year-old Alice, pertly played by Natalie Gregory. The TV-movie is chock full of well-known celebrities, and most of them can’t do much more with their short roles but belt out tunes and trip the light fantastic. Oddly, Telly Savalas gets one of the best moments, playing a rather insidious Cheshire Cat. Yet Zincel’s script does what Sterling’s does not. All of the short star-turns contribute to a greater whole: a vision of a child being continually flummoxed by the unfathomable whims of absurd adults, who don’t even acknowledge any ofthe pedagogical knowledge Alice has obtained.

The songs, credited to Steve Allen, are sometimes just sprightly doggerel. But as if to offset the unmemorable ditties, Allen—of whom I’m not much of a fan—does at times “get” Carroll. Thus in the vignette devoted to the child-abusing Duchess and her cranky cook—not one of the most-adapted segments-- performers Martha Raye and Imogene Coca deliver some fun with a song called, “ There's Something to Say for Hatred.” 

The only real misstep in the special is that once Alice has escaped Wonderland, there’s a moment in which she watches all the colorful grotesques on the other side of the mirror, as they sing her a loving farewell song. I think one of the main points of Carroll’s books is portray a world where love is impossible; where, with rare exceptions, everyone is out for himself or herself. But a seven-year-old watching the show might merely enjoy seeing all the grotesques given a more benign aspect.

Both works conform to my “delirious dreams” trope, in that Wonderland is entirely the product of Alice’s vivid imagination.  

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