Saturday, October 23, 2010

Film Review: Alice in Wonderland

"Alice in Wonderland" ** (out of ****)

Back when Tim Burton's adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland" (2010) was released I reviewed it along side the Disney animated film made in 1951. At the time I spoke of this version released in 1933.

"Alice in Wonderland" has been a rarity for years. Out of print on VHS and never released on DVD most people only had their memories to go by on the quality of the film. A majority of people will tell you they remember seeing this movie on TV when they were a child. However, once Burton's film was released someone got the idea to finally release this film on DVD hoping the interest in Burton's film may spark some viewers with a interest to seek out other adaptations. I'm glad they did but the film is not what I was expecting.

On paper "Alice in Wonderland" should have been a knockout. The film was directed by Norman Z. McLeod best known as a comedy director. He was the man behind the Marx Brothers comedy "Horse Feathers" (1932), the W.C. Fields comedy "Its A Gift" (1934), the Bob Hope vehicle "The Paleface" (1948) and the Cary Grant comedy "Topper" (1937). The screen adaptation was co-written by Joseph L. Mankiewicz. The famed writer/director was behind a few choice comedies such as the Wheeler & Woolsey comedy "Diplomaniacs" (1933) and another W.C. Fields comedy, "Million Dollar Legs" (1932). Plus you have an all-star cast including Cary Grant (Mock Turtle), Gary Cooper (The White Knight), W.C. Fields (Humpty Dumpty), Jack Oakie (Tweedledum), Edward Everett Horton (Mad Hatter), Edna May Oliver (Red Queen) and comedy legend Ford Sterling (White King), one of the original Keystone Kops.

Despite all the talent involved this adaptation of Lewis Carroll's acclaimed novels; "Alice Adventures in Wonderland" and its sequel "Through the Looking Glass" just doesn't work. The film feels long, and its only 1 hour and 17 minutes. It doesn't tell much of a story. It just lingers. There is no rhyme or reason to the film. And I seriously doubt today's younger viewers will find much to cheer about.

We meet Alice (Charlotte Henry) who sits home bored as a snow storm is outside. Desperate to go out and play Alice amuses herself inventing stories. One includes her entering through her mirror and seeing what life is like on the other side. Alice soon accomplishes this goal as she soon follows a rabbit down a hole and enters Wonderland.

Once Alice is in Wonderland the film consist of her meeting characters, whom she talks to for a few minutes and then shatters off to the next character. This goes on for roughly an hour. There really isn't a plot. Just a collection for short sketches thrown together. Alice doesn't even want to go home. There is no objective on her part.

The real reason anyone would chose to watch this film is for the cast. And the people who are going to watch this film are old timers like me who actually know the stars in the cast. And even that is disappointing as we cannot clearly tell who is behind the costumes and make-up. Only their voices are recognizable. The film is a low point for many of the talent involved.

However one must remember the time this film was made. It was done before people like Cary Grant or Gary Cooper were major Hollywood stars. Cooper hadn't appeared in films such as "Meet John Doe" (1941), "The Pride of the Yankees" (1942) or "For Whom the Bell Tolls" (1943). Cary Grant, at this point, was best known for appearing in a couple of Mae West comedies; "She Done Him Wrong" (1933) and my favorite, "I'm No Angel" (1933). Had this film been made at a later time, I would strongly bet against either one of them acting in this.

We must also put in perspective that while the cast is well known to us old timers and film buffs, the film is largely comprised of popular character actors not leading male and female stars. Edward Everette Horton is well known to us, but, he was largely a comic relief character. Same goes for Charles Ruggles (March Hare) and Edna May Oliver. The biggest star in the cast might have been Fields. Or maybe Baby LeRoy (Joker playing card).

Still, it wouldn't be fair if I didn't point out the film does have a certain amount of charm and some good visual effects for the day. Had there just been more for the actors to work with, this could have been a charming light diversion. A piece of nice family entertainment. If that is what you are looking for watch the Disney animated film instead.