There is something eternally enthralling about Alice in Wonderland, or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to give Lewis Carroll’s seminal work its proper title. Since the first adaptation appeared in 1903 there have been more than 40 films and television programmes based on this most renowned example of “literary nonsense”, and now Nick Willing’s star-studded 1999 version is getting a new DVD release.
Watched in one sitting this film feels a little drawn out and at 150 minutes it does require a certain commitment, but apart from some changes to the central narrative it is a reasonably faithful adaptation. Willing has successfully captured the bizarreness of Carroll’s tale of a young girl disappearing down a rabbit hole into a world created by her own dreams, and one populated by some of most memorable characters in literature. Original themes remain, and there is the added sub-plot of Alice needing to find the courage and confidence to perform in public, and it is hard to imagine fans of the source material finding too much fault.
As with any version though, the performances are everything. Martin Short’s wonderfully “mad” Mad Hatter and Miranda Richardson’s Queen of Hearts (think of her Queen Elizabeth I from Blackadder turned up a few notches on the madness scale with added shrieking) are the standouts in a cast full of surprises that keeps the familiar story entertaining. Around every corner lurks another big name, with Jason Flemyng virtually unrecognisable as Jack and Whoopi Goldberg intermittently grinning her way through the film as the slightly peripheral Cheshire Cat.
Given the film's initial home on television, and the chapter definition of the book, it is perhaps understandable there is a slightly episodic feel to the film. Unavoidably, it exists as a series of madcap comedy skits linked together by quieter, more thoughtful interludes, but this somehow enhances the story as Alice slowly learns something different from each of her encounters.
Much of the fun in the film comes from the work of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, for which it won one of four Emmy Awards at the time of release. The mix of puppetry, live-action and special effects is hugely nostalgic in an age when a reliance on CGI dominates filmmaking, and children perhaps more than adults will find the superbly designed creatures both fascinating and engaging.
One thing is for certain; this version of Alice in Wonderland is less divisive than Tim Burton’s hugely successful yet widely criticised interpretation. There really is nothing not to like here but it would be recommended to watch this film as it was originally intended: as a mini-series. 150 minutes is a long time to spend in Wonderland in one go.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND / CERT: U / DIRECTOR: NICK WILLING / SCREENPLAY: PETER BARNES / STARRING: TINA MAJORINO, MARTIN SHORT, MIRANDA RICHARDSON, CHRISTOPHER LLOYD, WHOOPI GOLDBERG, BEN KINGSLEY, GENE WILDER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW