It's a Monster Party

Godzilla: King of the Monsters

On my various sites I’ve covered a number of works that have seen a ton of adaptations. DraculaHe's the great undead fiend, the Prince of Darkness, the monster based on a real historical figure. He... is Dracula! is, of course, the most famous (and most adapted), but that’s given a close second by the other Universal MonstersThis franchise, started off with Dracula and Frankenstein in 1931, was a powerhouse of horror cinema for close to two decades, with many of the creatures continuing on in one-off movies years later., and then Sherlock HolmesOften cited as the world's greatest (fictional) detective, this character was introduced in 1887 (in A Study in Scarlet) and has gone on to appear in hundreds of stories, films, shows, and more., Zorro, and others. In most cases the works were so popular that there were rabid fan-bases ready for one adaptation after another, every few years, so they could revisit the world again and again. It’s like if Harry PotterFirst released as a series of books (starting in the UK before moving worldwide), the Harry Potter series gained great acclaim before even becoming a series of successful movies. Now encompassing books, films, a prequel series, and a successful two-part play, the series even now shows no end in sight. saw a new adaptation every few years, by different studios and groups, all because the copyright holder let the various stories out for anyone to license. We don’t see these kinds of multiple adaptations for modern works because, at a certain point, copyright holders became smarter about keeping hold of their own materials.

Another work that saw a lot of adaptations was Lewis Carroll’s 1865 work Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (as well as its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There). Producers absolutely benefitted here as these novels are so old that they existed well outside of copyright law for most works looking to take and play in Carroll’s world. Thus, adaptations started showing up as early as 1903, leading to over 80 direct adaptations, and more “inspired by” works, with more seemingly on the way. Obviously, trying to cover every single one of those works would be difficult, but we can at least touch upon a few of the more famous works from across the decades.

The 1972 adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland was the most popular film in Britain in the year it was released (at least, according to Wikipedia). It’s an all-star affair, when discussing British media for the era, with the likes of Peter Sellers and Dudley Moore appearing in the film. It was popular enough to have a long licensing tail after its initial release, even coming stateside so that younger kids could view the movie on basic cable. I grabbed this DVD years ago, simply figuring I’d watch the film for the site and then move on, but then, while watching, I realized I’d seen this production before. It was shown more than once on Nickelodeon (because it was cheap to license and G-rated) and little kid me clearly saw it again and again while the TV was on.

Truth be told, though, it’s also a real snore. This film is overly long (even with a 101 minute runtime) and it absolutely drags in every one of its scenes. This film is the definition of “1970s pacing”, taking its sweet time and meandering without really giving us much to see and enjoy. The production values are lovely, and there are some interesting effects at play to make the film feel magical, but that’s all bogged down by sloggy pace, overly long takes, and far too little story for the pace of the film. I have to wonder if Nickelodeon did a lot of editing before putting the film on air before I don’t (vaguely) remember this film being so boring… although it could also just be that I turned it out while I played with toys. That seems to be the best way to suffer through this slow, turgid film.

As with most versions of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, our protagonist is off on holiday when a white rabbit runs past, ruining her picnic. As she lays there, in the sun, thinking about chasing the rabbit, she nods off and, magically, finds herself falling down through the rabbit hole until, eventually, she ends up in a long and endless hallway. She sees a number of doors she can’t open, but there’s one tiny door, with a key, if only she were small enough to fit. Drinking a potion marked “drink me” shrinks her down to size, but she forgets to grab the key. Eating a snack marked “eat me” grows her up to a huge size. This leaves her crying, thinking it all too silly. But the rabbit goes past, and she wants to give chase, so she drinks again and goes after him, wanting to see what’s next.

What then follows is one strange scene after another as Alice meets the denizens of Wonderland, from singing and dancing animals to the Mad Hatter and his tea party. She then ends up at the court of the Queen of Hearts, who is always demanding the heads of all her disobedient subjects. When a court case goes poorly, and the Queen and her subjects fight against the girl (who is now growing more and more massive as the magical drink wears off), Alice finds herself waking back at her picnic spot, realizing it was all a dream and that Wonderland didn’t really exist. Except… maybe it did…

I will confess that I’ve never actually read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. My knowledge of the story comes from the many adaptations of the work (and its sequel), some that have strayed from the original story. I don’t know how far this adaptation went from the original books, but however much fidelity it does have, it doesn’t feel like the right amount. The big problem is that, for a work all about Alice’s adventures, she doesn’t really have all that many adventures at all. The whole of the movie is about this silly girl going to a place, watching the people sing and dance, and then she skips off somewhere else for the patterns to repeat. These aren’t thrilling adventures, let alone anything with connective tissue at all. It’s just… scenes.

An important part of a story is taking the protagonist, Alice in this case, and teaching her things about herself while she adventures around. Each one of these scenes should build to something, not just a climax for the movie but a moment of revelation for herself. Alice falls into the rabbit hole, has a cry, and thinks to herself that she needs to grow up, learn to control herself, be better (which is a very British way to have a cry, if we’re being honest), but then she does none of that (outside some rather literal growing), leaving the story exactly the same girl she was when she entered it. So what was the point of all of it?

It’s a failing of the scenes, really, because none of them seem to have a point to them beyond, “these things happened in the book so we’ll do something similar.” When Alice meets the singing and dancing rodents and birds of the forest, she comments that she wished her cat was there because the cat loved to chase the mice and birds. This sends the animals scurrying away and the scene ends with Alice giving a shrug and moving on. No lesson learned, no moment of her going, “hey, maybe I shouldn’t have said that.” Just a shrug and nothing more. And that happens again and again, like when she’s put in charge of a baby and it turns into a pig, or when she’s dragged out to speak to the Mock Turtle because he’s in an emotional state. Each scene just ends and Alice moves on, nothing gained and nothing learned. After a while it becomes hard to care about anything happening here because nothing matters. We all just shrug and collectively move on.

Which is a real pity because while the story is awful the production values (for the 1970s) are pretty solid. The costumes in this work are fabulous, with the animal suits being a real highlight. They’re designed with real care, some of them so ornate you know it took days to make them. None of them will make you believe they’re actual animals, mind you, as the film never tries to pretend otherwise, but that doesn’t make the costumes any less impressive. And the set design, while cheap, shows that same level of care. This was clearly a production done on sound stages, working with what they had after spending everything they could on the costumes, and the care is palpable.

The camera trickery used to make Alice grow, shrink, and be sized with everyone else is impressive. There’s likely some compositing used in places but, for the most part, it’s clear that she’s on set with everyone else. Camera tricks and perspective were the only way this could have been pulled off, but it’s so seamless that you stop trying to figure out how it was done and just go with it. Clearly the designers knew what they were doing and had the right technicians around to pull all this off. I really liked how this film worked (even with a shitty DVD transfer that came off clearly degraded filmstock) even if I hated the story.

I wish this film were better as a lot of care clearly went into the production. It’s just so boring, though. It got a lot of play on cable back in the day but you can also see why it doesn’t show up anymore. This is a long slog of a film that really needed better writing, better editing, and more going on. I was so bored by the end that, despite its great production, I was overjoyed to watch it end. Relief is not the reaction you want from a movie, but that’s all I felt once the credits rolled on Alice ‘72, and that’s tragic.