The new Disney/Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland is causing a flood of DVD releases showcasing different versions of Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole. One is a “modern” telling of the story (sorta), originally presented as a mini-series on the SyFy Network in 2009.
I’ve never been a huge fan of the classic Lewis Carroll books “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.” Not sure why, maybe it was because I didn’t take a lot of drugs as a young man and don’t have a very active imagination. In any case, I don’t look around for unique and new ways to “re-imagine” the characters and story of Alice and all the card people and tea parties she encounters in that magical world. Nick Willing, writer and director of the Syfy mini-series Alice, does, though, and he even succeeds in a modest way.
Willing, also the writer/director of SyFy’s Tin Man, has an interesting take on Carroll’s stories. Rather than redo them, he simply pulls Wonderland 150 years into the future and sends another Alice in to let us see what has changed since the time of the original stories. A lot. A whole lot. This Wonderland is modern in terms of look and grown-up in terms of tone. It needs a modern and grown-up heroine, and Willing provides that, too. Alice (Caterina Scorsone) is a twentysomething karate instructor with a boyfriend, Jack (Phillip Winchester), and a desire to track down her father, who left when she was 10. Alice isn’t meant to be the Alice of the books; in fact she is often asked if she is “the” Alice in a running joke of sorts.
Rather than falling down the rabbit hole, Alice follows after Jack, who is kidnapped and carried through a mirror to Wonderland. Wonderland has evolved since the first Alice’s trip back in Victorian times (just as our world has) and is now a desolate urban jungle stretching miles in the air, surrounded by nature where few go. The Queen of Hearts (Kathy Bates in Misery-lite crazy mode) rules, and humans from our world, called “Oysters,” are kidnapped and sent to her casino to be drained of their emotions, which are then sold off to the highest bidder. The animals and fantastical characters are mostly gone, replaced by people who hint at the character that came before them.
The story is decent enough science-fiction, but once you get all the characters and book references out there, it becomes less a story about Wonderland and more just about good guys vs. bad guys. The good guys -- Alice, Hatter (Andrew Lee Potts), the White Knight (Matt Frewer), and the leaders of the resistance -- face off against the Queen, Dodo (Tim Curry), and Caterpillar (Harry Dean Stanton), try to keep an important ring called the Stone of Wonderland away from the Queen, and attempt to return Alice to her own world, perhaps with her missing father in tow. The evil forces including the Queen, the King (Colm Meany), the White Rabbit (Alan Gray), Dr. Dee and Dr. Dum (both Eugene Lipinski), and hit man Mad March (Geoff Redknap) need the Stone to keep bringing the “Oysters” and their emotions to Wonderland. The chase is on!
The chase, which takes place at times in and around CGI sets and stunts of modest impressiveness (this is TV after all), at times brings to mind a Steven Segal movie more than the Disney cartoon of our memory. Willing doesn’t seem to want to get beneath the surface of any of the characters or investigate big themes. Scorsone doesn’t bowl anyone over as Alice, and her relationship with Hatter is telegraphed from the first meeting, but the work of Frewer, Bates, and Meany among others is good. You don’t have to be an Alice-phile to enjoy the story or the performances, and if you are, there are probably loads of references that I missed.
The four hours shown over two nights on television is now commercial free and lasts just over three hours in one seamless block. It feels a bit bloated when watched all at once, but if you want some different (but familiar) characters in a semi-interesting story, with semi-interesting effects and generally good performances, this might be the reimagining for you.
The Alice DVD is discouraging, as the film itself is good enough for a watch but the disc is terrible. The transfer and the sound are both fine, but the disc lacks any extras save a commentary track. This actually seems to be a fairly large undertaking for the small screen. There are literary roots, heavy CGI, some big names involved, and an overall trend with these reimaginings of classic material (like SyFy’s previous Tin Man. Plenty of material for interesting featurettes and behind-the-scenes info that is completely ignored.
The commentary itself, the only extra, is fine. It features writer/director Willing and star Scorsone. They chat and start a lot of sentences with “remember when…” Scorsone has an annoying habit (shared by many commentary participants) of saying the actor's name and sighing, as though we should all be lucky enough to know this person. Both get a little too quiet at times, but overall they get the job done without breaking new ground.
I really can’t recommend the DVD with one paltry extra, but it’s worth renting. If you’re a Carroll purist, you’ll probably ignore the whole thing anyway. This is not a very kid-friendly Wonderland, but there is enough in the mini-series to recommend a look.