Alice in Wonderland (1985)

If “Alice in Wonderland” has never been a hit movie by some of the most creative minds in entertainment history, it sure as hell was not going to work with some of the laziest.  The powers-that-be behind this one seem to be Steve Allen and his friends.  Not a bad crowd, mind you.  Sammy Davis, Jr., Ann Jillian, Jonathan Winters, Carol Channing, everyone is here, but together?  It’s a four-hour “Love Boat” episode helmed not by Captain Steubing, but by a terror of a child actress, Natalie Gregory.

We know we’re in trouble from the onset when Alice’s mother is played by Sheila Allen.  Never heard of her?  Go back and watch any Irwin Allen-produced movie (his 70s disaster movies are his “best”).  She’s his Mrs. and there was always a part waiting for her.  Unlike her co-stars in this schlock, who can rely on their ready-made personalities, Mrs. Allen can barely manage to read the cue cards. Feckless Natalie then romps through Wonderland, which is given green thumb treatment with a set full of fake trees and bushes so small the cast has to run around it and constantly pretend they haven’t just been to that last spot.

The comic casting starts with Red Buttons as the rabbit always late.  He barely registers, but wait until Alice starts crying so hard she wets the whole land.  This is when Shelley Winters shows up in a gigantic (and by this point in her life, that’s the best word for it) bird costume.  Since Irwin Allen produced “The Poseidon Adventure,” is this an in-joke as to what would have happened if her character had not had a massive heart attack after swimming her girth through an underwater maze to help free everyone?  If it’s an in-joke, it’s a cruel one, because she shares it with Sherman Hemsley, who is the only one allowed to sing (perhaps Donald O’Connor, the only actual singer of all in the scene, saw the music and figured it was better to let someone else handle it). From there, Alice, growing increasingly petulant, to the point where if she asks another damn question Lewis Carroll himself will awake and smack her, runs into such wish-they-were-not-heres as Scott Baio as a pig who tries to help Red Buttons rid the latter’s house of Alice, now grown to enormous height, and Sammy Davis Jr. as the Caterpillar.

When Sammy goes to sing a song with Alice, he magically morphs into a costume that allows him legs to…you guessed it…tap!  Everything is tailored to the talents of the performers, so why shouldn’t Sammy tap?  He has the hookah for his omnipresent smoke, but where is the bar?  Actually, with this crowd, little Sammy wouldn’t stand a chance finding it. One might have expected Shelley to have done so already, but we have to wait until Martha Raye as the Duchess to have the scenery chewed.  Singing with fellow comic Imogene Coca, their number is no better than anyone else’s, but they mug a lot more.  Martha’s face finds more positions for one syllable than some of the other actors find in four hours!  The scene ends with a cute little piglet running from the set.  That’s a metaphor for every performer who has just finished shooting his or her scene.  Run, hams, run!

After Telly Savalas proves that he can perform in hair (granted, it’s a cat suit), we come to the utter insanity of the tea party, which is manned by Anthony Newley, Roddy McDowell and Arte Johnson.  Tony and Roddy try to out-over-act each other, but Tony has the louder voice and thus wins that delightful competition.  It’s an assault to our ears, but he wins it. Another wife enters the picture, though she doesn’t threaten to destroy the sets because Jayne Meadows Allen is nowhere near as large as Sheila stuffed into her too-tight costume.  Actually, Jayne is a welcome presence because she gets that she’s playing nonsense, but manages to give it a bit of class.  Don’t get me wrong, she wins no honors for what she does, but she’s far more elegant than stupid, like most of her co-stars.  Like Robert Morley, for example.  Poor Robert made a career out of playing morons, and his King of Heart is no exception.  So, Jayne runs around insisting “off with his/her head” as we pray that one by one the characters will be killed.  Martha Raye almost gets it, but is allowed to clomp her way off instead.  One little death, please?  Not even an extra.  Not even when Alice grows to “two miles” does anyone get bumped off.  I’ll give someone $100 to bump off the nine of diamonds, and $1000 to take out Robert Morley.

As Jayne plays regal all the way around her set, we’re forced to sit through arguably the worst of the movie’s nearly 20 musical numbers (all of which sound exactly alike–dull).  Sid Caesar knowingly keeps to the background as Ringo Starr as the Mock Turtle (with painted on tears) sings and dances with Alice.  Wait, go back.  Ringo Starr?  How the hell did Ringo Starr find his way into this Wasteland…I mean Wonderland?  You can see Martha Raye and Imogene Coca and Red Buttons kibitzing around Steve Allen’s pool on a Sunday dreaming this crap up, but how did Ringo Starr get involved?  He doesn’t seem to have any history with this aging section of Hollywood?  Maybe that’s why he’s the most painful of all, because his histrionics are without any history.  Oh, and there’s another in-joke here.  Alice pulls up two weeks and plays Ringo’s costume like the drums, except it sounds like a xylophone, thus ruining that moment handily. Robert and Jayne emote through the trial and eventually Alice ends up home.  All is as it should be, but we’re not done yet.  It seems Alice’s parents are not home.  No doubt Sheila Allen, who has supposedly been preparing tea since all of this began, is in a trailer somewhere eating.  Natalie opens a book, reads about the Jabberwocky and then finally we’re done.  The credits roll.

So, all in all…oh, no…it’s starting up again!  Oh, yes!  Not only did this dream-free team take on Alice in Wonderland, but Through the Looking Glass as well.  This means a whole new corps of crackpots muddling their way through both that fake forest and Carroll’s insane story (not that Wonderland ever made complete sense, but Looking Glass never even approached the pretense). Lowlights here include Steve and Eydie as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, with the latter looking like she’s filling out the costume without padding, Jonathan Winters as Humpty Dumpty, a strangely young Patrick Duffy (not as young as Scott Baio, but not as old as…well…anyone else) as goat, sharing train history’s most annoying compartment ever with Steve Allen himself and Pat Morita as a horse, Sally Struthers and Donna Mills as flowers (watching this in 2010, I have no doubt Donna can still fit into her costume, but Sally?), but the bottom is lower in Looking Glass than it was in Wonderland because of the story.  We’re forced to sit through the raving antics of Carol Channing, playing the White Queen as Muzzy and Lorelei combined, and the soothing tones of Ann Jillian as the Red Queen.  Over and over again.  These two characters keep appearing to teach Alice lessons and by the time Ann croons her lullaby, not only is Carol Channing out cold, but so is everyone without a remote control. Five hundred hours later, the Jabberwocky invades the palace where all have come to celebrate Queen Alice (meaning the cast of the second movie and the two or three from the first who couldn’t get out of their costumes fast enough to make an escape) and Alice runs up and down the same hallway a dozen times while everyone shrieks.  Her brave knight Lloyd Bridges can’t best the Jabberwocky, but Alice finally does by admitting she’s not afraid.  Bravo, Alice.  What’s her compensation for growing up?  She’s allowed to have tea with her parents, the menu supposedly including strawberry shortcake and ginger snaps, though by the sated look on Sheila Allen’s face, there won’t be much left by the time Alice changes her clothing.

“Alice in Wonderland” is completely Sui generis in terms of the grand miniseries.  It’s neither historic nor dramatic.  It may actually be the only of the periods pieces created for children (though it misses that mark by stretching itself out to four hours and casting a cadre of kooks whom 80s children wouldn’t have known too well), but it’s not nearly funny or clever enough to hold the attention of tykes.  It’s not campy because it’s too dim to take itself seriously.  It’s the kind of television that abounded in early TV variety shows, though worse.  I can see Sid and Imogene doing their take on Alice on his show in the 50s and busting a gut.  But, by 1985, Catskills comedy was kaput.

Categories: Adventure Miniseries

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