A Little Song, a Little Dance...

Alice in Wonderland (1985): Part 1

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is such a strange story. A girl falls into a magical world and ends up just wandering through it without really engaging with it. She sees all these animals and gets annoyed by them. She goes to a mad tea party and largely seems confused by it all. She meets a mock turtle but, in no way, does she find a way to learn any lessons from him. Over and over she sees people and creatures, all of them having weird and wild adventures, and she breezes past it all. I suppose if I met all these strange and annoying beings and nothing I did seemed to get them to change in any real way, I’d breeze past them as well. It just doesn’t make for a very compelling narrative arc.

Of course, there’s also the fact that the story ends with a “it was all a dream” wrap up. Every version of her story has her wake up from her trip to Wonderland (which, frankly, isn’t all that wonderful), realizing she was asleep the whole time so she can go back to her life as before. Did she learn anything about herself? Not particularly. The denizens of Wonderland aren’t really there to teach lessons. Alice starts the story as a precocious child who thinks she’s more adult than she really is and, over the course of her time in Wonderland, chastises everyone there for being immature idiots. Is this supposed to contrast with her and show her aspects of herself she should work on changing? Perhaps, but it never feels like that lesson actually sticks to Alice, especially not in the various adaptations of her story. It’s just her wandering through a weird world and, occasionally, stuff happens.

This is what’s frustrating about the various adaptations of the novel: it’s hard to get involved in the work when, time and again, the little girl at the center of the story seems so completely incapable of actually learning anything from her adventures. The same is true in this 1985, two-part adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. We’re covering part one here, as the two “episodes” are essentially two full movies, and this one goes over the same basic stuff you’re likely familiar with if you’ve seen any other version of Alice in Wonderland (including the 1972 version we recently looked at). Alice, just going about her adventure, blithely clueless about how any of this might apply to her.

When first we meet her, Alice (Natalie Gregory) is upset because her mother, Sheila Allen, won’t let the little girl (who is only seven) attend the afternoon tea party. “Tea is for adults,” her mother says, shooing her out of the house. Out in the garden Alice sees her sister (Sharee Gregory) and is again reminded she’s just a little girl and not an adult like Alice seems to think. Any thought of processing this information, though, is quickly forgotten when Alice sees a white rabbit (Red Buttons) run through the garden, off on some adventure of his own. Alice gives chase, eventually ending up in his rabbit den where she promptly falls down a deep hole and ends up at the doors to Wonderland.

From there she grows and shrinks all before getting through the Wonderland proper. She has a dance with some animals, and then gets upset at their mockery and runs off. She asks various people for help, such as the Caterpillar (Sammy Davis, Jr.), the Duchess (Martha Raye) and her cook (Imogene Coca), and the Gryphon (Sid Caesar). She attends a mad tea party, gets into trouble at the White Rabbit’s house, and ends up playing croquet with the Queen of Hearts (Jayne Meadows). In the end she somehow finds a way to upset everyone in Wonderland and is forced to make her escape, all to then wake up back in her garden, thinking it’s all a dream. Except, is it, because when she gets home no one is there and Alice realizes she’s somehow trapped on the other side of a mirror, watching her family through the glass, unable to escape. That is until the Jabberwocky shows up and the first movie of this duo ends.

So, it’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. If you like the tale then this is a pretty accurate production. It’s exactly what it says on the package, at least for this first movie, giving you all the same old scenes you’ve likely watched before. For someone that hadn’t seen any version of Alice up to this point (and, with the Disney version out there, how could you have missed it) this isn’t a bad version of it, not particularly… it’s just also not very good, in large part because it’s just the same old production you’ve likely seen in any other version out there. Same scenes, same ideas, same concepts, all over again.

The selling point for this version was the cavalcade of stars that appeared in this work. There are a ton of C-list celebrities from the 1970s and 1980s that people, at the time, presumably wanted to see. If the likes of Cid Caesar, Terry Savalas, Ringo Star, and Red Buttons could get you to tune into a piece well then this was the movie to get you watching. Going back and watching it now, though, I had this sad feeling about the whole thing. It’s like going to watch The Star Wars Holiday Special, or any number of variety shows that aired back during this era with celebrities still desperately clutching to relevance when the Hollywood A-list has passed them by. Hell, they got the lesser Beatle, Ringo, to play the Mock Turtle. If you can’t at least get George does it even really count?

As you would expect, with this kind of “talent pool” there are going to be songs. It’s a variety show, no matter how it dresses itself up, so there have to be songs to go along with. Sammy Davis, Jr. performs “You Are Old, Father William”, doing a tap dance with Natalie Gregory. It’s a fun moment, sure, but the song has absolutely nothing to do with the character Davis was playing, the Caterpillar, nor does it really relate to anything in the plot of the movie later on. It’s just there so the singer/dancer could do a bit of song and dance and this was the bit he wanted to do. You know, like a variety show. Out of context it’s great. In context it really doesn’t work and it sucks all the life out of the scene.

The worst offender for this is "Nonsense" from Ringo Starr. The Mock Turtles is already a tacked-on character, there because the Queen of Hearts says, “oh, you simply must meet the Mock Turtle.” Must we? What does he add to the story? Absolutely nothing. He shows up, does a sad, weird song, and all the while you’re sitting there going, “yeah, wow, you really were the cheapest Beatle they could get on a budget. Afterwards, Alice and the Gryphon (who was also just there simply because) leave and the Mock Turtle is never remarked on again. Is his song enjoyable? On its own, yes, but this far into the movie, when we’ve been going from one scene after another where shit just happens, people just sing because, and nothing of consequence is learned, I really didn’t need Ringo “Mock Turtle” Starr showing up to waste more time.

And if we’re going to pick on everything, I have to note that the production values for this work aren’t nearly as nice as the 1972 version. Bear in mind that previous film was made on a budget of $1.5 Mil which, while not insignificant for the 1970s, still wasn’t a massive amount (Jaws, made three years later, cost $9 Mil, and all they needed was a boat and a fake shark). Despite the relative low budget, that film looks better than this, which had the artistic merit of a bunch of furries putting on a community theater production. Sure, this film was made for TV, and you can’t expect the same level of theatricality as a movie, but this movie had 13 years to do better, and a whole lot of creative people worked on it, and this was still the best they could do?

As you can probably guess, I didn’t enjoy this production of Alice in Wonderland. It’s not very creative, not at all inventive, and feels too mired in the expectations of what an Alice in Wonderland movie needs to be. It would have been better if the creators could have had more fun with the story, like they did with the songs, but once the (largely unrelated) musical numbers ended the film went back to being a slog. It was more fun to mock this film than it was to sit through it, and that’s always a bad sign. The best way to watch this movie is to get a group of people together and do a Mystery Science Theater 3000First aired on the independent TV network KTMA, Mystery Science Theater 3000 grew in popularity when it moved to Comedy Central. Spoofing bad movies, the gang on the show watch the flicks and make jokes about them, entertaining its audience with the same kind of shtick many movies watchers provided on their own (just usually not as funny as the MST3K guys could provide). It became an indelible part of the entertainment landscape from there, and lives on today on Netflix. assault on it. If you can’t get that, maybe don’t watch it at all.