‘Alice in Wonderland,’ a curious Hollywood history


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Are you ready for a trip down the rabbit hole? Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Disney are adding a strange new chapter to the Lewis Carroll classic with ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ a film that presents a young woman who finds herself in the world of the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen. She is welcomed as a returning visitor -- but is she in fact the same Alice who roamed the trippy realm as a child? Time will tell. Here at the Hero Complex we’re counting down to the film’s March 5 release with daily coverage. Today it’s the second part of Susan King’s look back at the character’s Hollywood history. (Read Part 1)


What’s the defining screen version of Alice for most Americans? It’s hard to argue against Walt Disney’s 1951’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which despite its beautiful Modernist animation was not a hit commercially or critically when it was released. The British press and literary critics denounced it as too Americanized, and they pounced on the absence of the White Knight, the Duchess and Humpty Dumpty. To Disney, though, the reason the film fizzled was a problem with the title character -- she lacked “heart,” he judged. But in the 1960s, ‘Alice,’ along with “Fantasia,” gained a reputation among college students as a “head” film.

Speaking of that tie-dyed era, one of the more intriguing incarnations of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ was a BBC version in 1966 that skipped the usual emphasis on visual effects. Director Jonathan Miller first came to fame in England in the early 1960s as part of the innovative comedy troupe Beyond the Fringe, which also featured Peter Cook, Dudley Moore and Alan Bennett. (Cook and Moore became a comedy team, Bennett a playwright and Miller a director.) Miller directed this beautifully shot BBC adaptation that eschews special effects and elaborate costumes and sets. Anne-Marie Millik plays Alice, John Gielgud is the Mock Turtle, Cook plays the Mad Hatter and Peter Sellers is the King of Hearts. And sitar legend (and the Beatles’ pal) Ravi Shankar supplied the music.

Jumping back, there was a 1949 French/British film version of “Alice in Wonderland” that presented actors as well as a supporting cast portrayed by the Bunin puppets. Carol Marsh played Alice, but her work wasn’t widely seen because of a legal issue with Disney, whose cartoon feature was already underway. The overseas version was eventually released here in 1951, but it flopped.

There was an interesting father-daughter appearance in another television production, this one in 1983 on the American side of the Atlantic. Kate Burton, best known as Ellis Grey on “Grey’s Anatomy,” played Alice in this uneven fantasy/musical conceived by the great stage actress/director Eva Le Gallienne that ran for 21 performances on Broadway in 1982 and early 1983. PBS’ “Great Performances” brought it to TV in 1983. It’s no classic, but it offers a rare chance to see young Kate acting opposite her legendary father, Richard Burton, who plays the White Knight.

As far as animation, one of the more interesting versions came in 1966 when ABC aired a 60-minute special produced by Hanna-Barbera. Set in modern times, Alice and her dog Fluff follow the White Rabbit down the hole in order to escape her angry father. Sammy Davis Jr. provided the voice of the cool Cheshire Cat .

Television has returned again and again and again to Lewis Carroll’s curious little girl in the pinafore dress. Often big names are pulled into the mix: Natalie Gregory had the title role in a CBS two-part miniseries that aired in 1985 and features Red Buttons, Anthony Newly, Carol Channing and Roddy McDowall.

NBC tried its luck in Wonderland in 1999, with Tina Majorino as Alice in a visual-effects-heavy version directed by Nick Willing. The supporting cast includes Martin Short, Whoopi Goldberg, Peter Ustinov, Ben Kingsley and Gene Wilder. Jim Henson’s Creature Shop designed the puppets.

Willing also directed the SyFy 2009 re-imagining of the story, set in Wonderland 150 years after Alice’s visit. And all is not good in the hood: Wonderland is filled with casinos built of playing cards and ruled by the Queen of Hearts (Kathy Bates). The White Rabbit is a covert organization working for the Queen that kidnaps people from the real world so they can gamble in the casinos. Alice (Caterina Scorsone) is a twentysomething judo sensei in who finds herself in this corrupt realm after her boyfriend is among the plucked.

The list just goes on and on, and ‘Alice’ productions arrive with all manner of passport stamps.

There was a 1981 Belgium-Polish musical version “Alice” that presented a modern retelling with Sophie Barjac in the title role. Jean-Pierre Cassel plays a jogger by the name of Rabbit.

Then the legendary Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer created the 1988 surreal fantasy ”Alice” that combines live action with stop-motion animation.

Want to know more about the real-life Alice and her influence on the literature? Dennis Potter (“The Singing Detective”) penned the exquisite 1985 “Dreamchild.” It’s a fictionalized look at Alice Liddell, the young woman who inspired Carroll’s famous stories. Amelia Shankley plays the young Alice; Coral Browne is the elderly Alice; and Ian Holm is the Rev. Charles Dodgson, a.k.a. Carroll. Popping up again, Jim Henson’s Creature Shop created the makeup and special effects in the fantasy sequences.

Oh, and in 1991, Disney took another shot at Alice: The Disney Channel introduced a live-action TV series based on the classic, starring Elisabeth Harnois as Alice. The show continued through 1995.

Now, of course, Disney has another trip planned down the rabbit hole. And with the cast, budget and 3-D technology brought to bear by this production, there is good reason to suspect that this 2010 version of Alice’s adventures will make a strange new magic for yet another generation.


-- Susan King


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Photos, from top: Anne-Marie Millik in the 1966 BBC version of ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (BBC); the cast of the 1985 ‘Alice in Wonderland’ (CBS); a poster for ‘Alice,’ the SyFy miniseries; a poster for ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ directed by Tim Burton.