Happily, Bower is reasonably faithful to Lewis's book. By and large, he avoids the unnecessary cuteness that burdens some adaptations as well as the exaggerated mannerisms afflicting others. Instead, he creates an almost supernatural world filled with eccentric individuals, twisted logic, agonizing paradoxes, assorted grotesqueries, and all the other mind bending fun of the original story. What is more, the movie preserves some of the harshness of Lewis's book. The Queen of Hearts threatens all those around her with decapitation; the ugly Duchess sings about beating her infant son, and he, when his mother's house explodes, is tossed into the air, caught by Alice, and transformed into a pig.
As enjoyable as are these fanciful occurrences and exasperating situations, they do not constitute the whole of the film's appeal. Visually, Alice in Wonderland is a real treat.
The inhabitants of Wonderland are all portrayed by puppets crafted and directed by Lou Bunin, who has brought his creations to life by means of stop motion animation. The man deserves considerable credit for his work here, since all of the puppets are just amazing. Not only are they skillfully animated, but they are beautifully sculpted as well. The Dodo with his huge, red, hooked beak, the pompous White Rabbit, the grinning Cheshire Cat, and the jowly, batrachian Queen of Hearts are all both curious and enchanting to watch. They are, however, hardly the only intriguing puppets to appear in the film. I especially loved the bewhiskered, monocle wearing, hookah smoking caterpillar, the army of dancing red lobsters, and the school of singing fish footmen with their white periwigs and colorful livery.
The sets used to create Wonderland are also deliciously odd. All are distinctly abstract and some are nearly surreal. For instance, after a miniaturized Alice escapes from the sea formed from tears she herself shed when she had been made into a giant, the girl finds herself upon a beach bristling with branching poles that are set at odd angles and are adorned with little triangular flags. The place looks like a painting by Joan Miro. The rabbit's impossibly tall and narrow house, shown in the subsequent scene, could have been lifted from The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari, and the field of grass the still tiny Alice next runs through is a weird origami forest. These are hardly the film's only fantastic locales. Wonderland is a marvelous place.
Although there are a great many things I like about Alice in Wonderland, I have to admit that the film does have some imperfections. The sequences that begin the movie, which depict Queen Victoria's arrival in Oxford and Dodgson's taking Alice and her sisters boating, as well as those that end it, which show the conclusions of these events, are tiresome and awkward. Moreover, the songs Bower has included, while never bad, are not inspired either. Then there is Alice. I enjoyed Marsh's performance and, perhaps, I am being too critical about something minor. Nonetheless, the actress was clearly in her twenties when she made the film. It would have been nice if the protagonist had actually been portrayed by a little girl, but this is an insignificant quibble.
Thanks to its real virtues, which greatly outweigh its shortcomings, Alice in Wonderland is a joy to watch. It might not be a masterpiece, but it is still the best adaptation of Lewis's work I have seen (excepting, of course, Jan Svankmajer's Alice, but that differs in tone so greatly from its literary source that I can hardly call it a faithful adaptation).
Review by Keith Allen
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