Yes Virginia, there really is an Alice in Wonderland musical from the 80’s. After watching Alice in Wonderland (1985) again for the first time since I was six I have to say it’s utterly bonkers and something little kids will like. It’s nonsense, but fun whether you feel like watching with a nostalgic or humorous lens.
Nearing its 35th anniversary, Alice in Wonderland aired on CBS as a two-part mini-series on December 9 and 10, 1985 and boasts a star-studded cast, including: Ringo Starr, Sherman Hemsley, Pat Morita, Roddy McDowall, Carol Channing, John Stamos, and more.
The Wonderland characters stand out in appearance. The show opens with the cast presented in full costume; yes, costume… no special computer-generated image representation like you’d see in the t.v. movie from 1999. Here they all look like actors in a stage show. Some special prostheses aside, don’t be surprised to see the actors sporting simple face-paint while wearing stitched-together costumes of fake fur and feathers.
“You’re a fake!” screams Alice to the Jabberwocky. “I don’t believe in you!”
“I don’t either!” I scream back at the screen. The poor creature was made on a budget that a freshman film student could have financed.
Alice (played by Natalie Gregory) begins the movie disappointed she can’t join the grownups for tea while feeling like a grownup herself at seven-and-a-half years old. Sent to join her sister outside, Alice happens upon a White Rabbit who accidentally leads her down a rabbit-hole and into the strangeness that is Wonderland and Looking Glass Land. From there, things only get curiouser and curiouser. She shrinks, grows, cries us a river, and travels around while accepting the occasional side-quest along her path home; eventually encountering the monstrous Jabberwocky.
Musical numbers parade throughout the piece; there’s a new song almost every scene which gets distracting. The music score, however, suggests a lighthearted romp filled with fun, whimsy, and something dazzling to the imagination.
The show is a delirium of goofiness and overacting; yet I didn’t come to watch Alice in Normalville. “There’s too much sense in the world for me, in my humble opinion!” says the Mock Turtle (Ringo Starr) who sings about the importance of nonsense. The best measure is to sit back and enjoy the silly ride while counting the famous cameos.
There is some wisdom found, which I appreciate for this nonsensical adventure: for instance, growing up means facing your fears. “Until you conquer the fears inside you, you’ll never be more than a child!” says wise Mr. Owl (Jack Warden).
Alice lacks an inner monologue as she often observes her situation and surroundings aloud; the scenes feel overstuffed with her audible exposition and the scenes themselves playing out for us to see. It feels scripted instead of organic. In what feels more like a public service announcement on child safety, Alice’s constant insight even leads her to check the Drink Me bottle for a “Poison” label instead of immediately taking its obvious direction.
The special visual effects are alright for a t.v. production; they are headed by John Dykstra, known for his visual effects work in Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope (1977), Star Trek The Motion Picture (1979), and Spider-Man (2002). They aren’t terrible; just noticeable without destroying the illusion.
Special Performances: Carol Channing is scary as the White Queen! She overacts and makes this viewer uncomfortable with her sudden changes from slow eerie delivery of The Exorcist (1973) proportions to singing briefly and emphatically: “Jam tomorrow, jam yesterday, but never ever jam today!” Also worth noting is Lloyd Bridges of Airplane! (1980) fame as the kindly White Knight whose chivalry and kindness is a welcome comfy blanket. Looks like he picked the wrong week to stop playing goofy characters…
Favorite Line: “Well when you’ve grown up, you’ll cry much less than you do now.” says Alice’s sister. Oh child… That’s not how life works; you cry *more*.
Watch Alice in Wonderland at least once! It’s whack-a-doodle and fun; don’t come to this movie looking for something sensible but instead enjoy it for its silly qualities. Even the nostalgic or skeptical audiences would agree!