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Monday, November 5, 2007

The Immortal Alice (originally published 3/99)

Charles L. Dodgson, the Oxford mathematician who gave us the immortal fantasy "Alice in Wonderland" under the pen name of Lewis Carroll, lived long enough to see the invention of motion pictures in the 1890s. Having dabbled in photography himself, he may even have imagined that this fledgling medium might one day be used to stage scenes from his famous story. In point of fact, if he had lived just five more years he could have seen the first movie adaptation of his brainchild, a 1903 production by British film pioneer Cecil Hepworth that ran all of ten minutes. Although primitive in some respects, this early production did not shrink from the special effects challenges posed by Alice's adventures. Indeed, moving picture camera tricks had already been elevated to an impressively high level by a French filmmaker and former magician named Georges Melies. As a result, movies with special effects were enjoying something of a vogue by 1903, which may have been one of the reasons Hepworth was attracted to the subject.

Since that time, it seems that almost every major advance in the evolution of special effects technology has been accompanied by a new screen version of "Alice in Wonderland," making it a kind of de facto touchstone for the state of the art. Most recently, Hallmark Entertainment, the video wizards behind the recent television productions of "The Odyssey" and "Merlin," have brought their magic wands to bear on Dodgson's hardy perennial for NBC. Here are some earlier versions to look for on home video.

"Alice in Wonderland" (1950). Adaptations of Alice's adventures generally fall into two categories: those aimed primarily at children and those skewed more toward adult viewers. This one falls in the latter category. It combines a live action Alice (Carol Marsh) with animated models brought to life by puppeteer Louis Bunin. This version has been neglected virtually from the beginning because it had the ill luck to have been released just prior to Disney's version with its attendant publicity blitz.

"Alice in Wonderland" (1951). Disney's version, not surprisingly, is aimed squarely at children. Although he had considered attempting a live-action version, Disney ultimately decided to make his "Alice" a fully animated feature length cartoon. In his customary fashion, he used first-rate Hollywood actors as voice talent and added in several musical numbers to enliven the proceedings. Although it was not a big box office success for Disney, the fantasy imagery of this way-out cartoon caused it to enjoy a revival in the early seventies as a "psychedelic" classic.

"Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" (1972). This British musical adaptation boasts as good a supporting cast as you'll find in any "Alice" movie, including Ralph Richardson as the Caterpillar, Dudley Moore as the Dormouse, and Peter Sellers as the March Hare. Fiona Fullerton stars as Alice.

"Alice in Wonderland" (1985) and "Alice Through the Looking Glass" (1985). Most "Alice" movies tend to combine material from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" with scenes from its sequel, "Through the Looking Glass." This television version actually treats the two separately, devoting a separate discrete film to each story. Producer Irwin Allen went all out to assemble an all-star cast, drawing from vintage stars like Sid Caesar and Carol Channing and from eighties stars like Sherman Hemsley and Scott Baio. The songs were written by Steve Allen.

"Alice" (1988). One of the most adventurous and fascinating versions of Alice's adventures is this imaginative interpretation from Czech animator Jan Svankmajer. A self-described "militant surrealist," Svankmajer had produced a significant body of work in the form of mind-blowing short subjects before venturing into the feature length arena with this highly individualistic "Alice." Svankmajer takes the nightmarish surrealism that was always implicit in Dodgson's stories and brings it sharply to the foreground. This sometimes disturbing vision of Wonderland is definitely not aimed at children, but more mature viewers will find it challenging and rewarding.

Regrettably, the fabled 1933 Paramount production of "Alice in Wonderland," which included Gary Cooper as the White Knight, Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, and W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty in its supporting cast, is not available on home video. If you find yourself in possession of a copy, better keep your wits about you. You may have tumbled down a rabbit hole.

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