Well-loved stories become well-loved not just because of their identifiable characters and universal themes, but because readers can make the stories their own. Though fans may not always write their stories down, travelers in any literary or cinematic universe, from The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland to Star Wars and Star Trek, see beyond the page and the screen. Fans see directly into those worlds, little gods staring down upon another’s creation. It’s only natural they’d want to recreate the things they love in their own image.
Alice is made in the image of writer/director Nick Willing. He not only directed a 1999 TV movie version of Alice in Wonderland starring Whoopi Goldberg, Ben Kingsley, Tina Majorino and others, he also directed the 2007 Syfy miniseries Tin Man, a re-imagining of the Oz universe starring Zooey Deschanel. Willing’s return to Wonderland earned superb rating when broadcast on Syfy late last year, and the DVD has the honor of hitting the shelves just in time to coincide with the release of Tim Burton’s take on the classic tale. Alice doesn’t follow the dark and trippy path of Burton’s work, instead it aims for a wider audience, trying to attract not just the fishnets and eyeliner set, but also their jock older brothers.
This Alice is Alice Hamilton (Caterina Scorsone), a young martial arts instructor whose search for her missing father has given her serious abandonment issues and threatened any chance she’s had at having a normal relationship with men. She hopes to change all that with her new boyfriend Jack (Philip Winchester), but when Jack proposes with his mother’s antique ring, Alice’s fear of abandonment resurfaces. When Jack leaves he’s attacked by well-dressed thugs and spirited away, and Alice finds herself following Jack’s abductors through a mirror and into another world.
It’s a quick setup meant to get the inconvenience of the real world out of the way and put the audience into fantasy world. We get a lot of characterization in a short time, including Alice’s abandonment issues and the tough-as-nails karate persona she uses to battle bad guys all throughout the rest of the film. When she arrives in Wonderland, it’s all tall buildings and hovering machines, an empty city covered in vines. There are signs of the original story along the way: the man who kidnapped Jack has long white hair, wears all white and complains about being late in a sinister tone.
Soon Alice meets Hatter (Andrew-Lee Potts), another familiar character. This Hatter is the proprietor of a tea shop, only instead of Darjeeling his shop serves its customers liquified human emotions like joy and lust. It’s at this point in the film Alice stops being a character for a while to become a broken record, asking again and again, “What do you mean?” and “What are you talking about?” Prompted by Alice’s questions, Hatter explains the rest of the film’s plot: the Queen (Kathy Bates) kidnaps people from Alice’s world to extract pure emotions like ones sold in Hatter’s shop. Without the instant gratification consuming these emotions provides, the Queen fears her subjects will revolt.
Unfortunately, the supply is running low, and the portal between Alice’s world and Wonderland, called the Looking Glass, is running out of power. The only thing that can energize the Looking Glass is the ring Jack, now revealed to be the Queen’s son, has given Alice. Now, Alice is determined to get Jack back and free the captives of the Queen.
There is a lot of plot and back story dumped in the film’s early scenes, and these moments tend to be wooden and chatty. It’s likely a function as much of the miniseries format as it is the writer’s determination to squeeze in every good idea he had. What’s frustrating is the story is very good, but it feels like it needed more time to develop. It makes one wonder if the ideas might have been put to better use in a series, giving the creators and viewers time for a slow burn on the mythology of the series rather than a quick download.
Like its Oz-inspired predecessor, this re-imagining of Wonderland moves toward the darker end of the spectrum, taking the danger and violence up to the level of an action film. It seems as if that’s the only way to go, especially for a story like this that’s been reinterpreted as everything from a straight stage adaptation of the original novel to a porno. Still, there is a feeling of getting to know the real story of Alice, like reading the original versions of fairy tales as opposed to the sanitized Disney versions. Much of the film, though, feels too confidence in its darkness, as if the characters themselves are calling attention to the difference. In fact, the characters acknowledge the existence of the Alice from Carroll’s novel. “[Wonderland’s] changed a lot since then,” Hatter says.
There’s none of the lysergic mania of Tim Burton’s film, though Alice is not without its strange moments. The Queen’s top assassin, Mad March (Geoff Redknap), is resurrected after a beheading, but when his head can’t be found it’s replaced with a plastic white rabbit’s head. It’s incredibly disturbing as the thing walks around with with empty white eyes, but the effect is ruined when the character speaks in a cartoon mobster’s voice.
Tweedle Dee’s and Tweedle Dum’s transformation into neo-Nazi mad scientists is the film’s most startling. As Dr. Dee and Dr. Dum (Eugene Lipinski), the twins interrogate Alice after she’s captured by the Queen. Alice enters her own head, which takes on the form of a small house, and the doctors watch through the windows, giants peering down at Alice and torturing her with bad memories. Harry Dean Stanton is also quite good as the Caterpillar, leader of the resistance against the Queen, but his character is gone after a few short scenes.
What Alice excels at is world-building. Ideas, characters and themes from the original book are here, but the intent is not to make another version of the familiar story. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are jumping off points, a foundation on which to build something, if not entirely new, then at least different. There are a myriad and mirrored ways to expand upon the world Lewis Carroll created, and each is a rabbit hole leading to world of its own. Viewers who travel down this hole will find great ideas suffering from hit and miss execution, but there’s always next time.