Each week, one of Biff Bam Pop’s illustrious writers will delve into one of their favorite things. Perhaps it’s a movie or album they’ve carried with them for years. Maybe it’s something new that moved them and they think might move you too. Each week, a new subject, a new voice writing on… something they love.
What do you get when you mix together classic literature, a well known Hollywood producer, a bunch of his friends, a wealth of catchy two minute songs, and an abundance of face paint? You get the odd, campy, 1985, made for television, musical extravaganza, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
Back before channels like Lifetime and Syfy got into the movie business, made for television movies could only be viewed on one of the major networks. The content usually involved epic historical fiction, or abusive husbands, but every so often a channel would throw us kids a bone, and in December of 1985, CBS aired a two night musical version of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.
Since the commercial previews emphasized that this was a special event, my mom had the foresight to throw a VHS tape into our VCR, and pressed record. This was something she later regretted. I watched it over, and over, and over again. I memorized my favorite songs, the accompanying dances, and was happy to perform them for anyone who asked. The TV movie was my first introduction into Alice’s world. I was hooked.
I despised actress Natalie Gregory when I watched the movie as a kid. Had someone informed the seven year old me that they were auditioning for an Alice, obviously I would be the one soft shoeing with Sammy Davis Jr. on the television screen.
In this adaptation, Alice is all over the place.There are times when she is tearful and timid, times when she is unbearably whiny, times when she is downright rude, and a few times when she is uncomfortably sadistic.
Gregory’s acting is less than subtle. Her performance is grade school play over the top, with a dash of Shirley Temple.
Like a lot of my favorite childhood stories, I was flabbergasted at seven that Alice got to explore this amazing place, and all she did was whine about going home. At the end, the land’s citizens make her a queen, give her a castle, throw her a huge sugar laden feast, and she is completely ungrateful. When she opens her gift, and the Jabberwocky pops out, I still root for him to eat her.
The Cast of Characters
I wish I could have listened in on the phone calls as producer Irwin Allen convinced his friends and the other stars to be part of this weird, imaginative romp.
“Being the Mock Turtle will be so much fun, Ringo… sure, your character can wear an earring.”
“No Jonathan, it’s going to be great. Playing Humpty Dumpty won’t be embarrassing at all.”
I knew some of the all star cast, like the above mentioned Jonathan Winters, from their guest roles on Scooby-Doo, but most of the cast members were unknown to the seven year old me.
One of the best performers, and my personal favorite, is Carol Channing, who plays The White Queen. Her jazzy tune about jam is so infections, if you dare to hear it, you will be forced to sing it in your head for the rest of your life at the mere mention of jam.
Since this version was my introduction into Alice’s world, I am always disappointed at any other adaptation that doesn’t have Sammy Davis Jr. as the hookah smoking Caterpillar.
Though I do appreciate Sid Caesar’s portrayal of The Griffin, I still feel that making Merv Griffin the Ticket Taker, and not The Griffin, was a missed opportunity.
Wonderland/Looking Glass Land
A beautiful matte painting, and/or a well executed, creative set design, has a special artistry all its own. Although the development of CGI is something to be thankful for, when Alice steps onto the giant chess board set, it’s hard not feel the magic.
Sure Alice traverses the same piece of forest again and again. A moved tree here, some different flowers there, are used to convince the audience that it’s not the same place she just danced in two minutes ago. The grass is fake, the buildings are clearly set pieces, but they are exactly the things that enticed me to believe in the fantastic playground of Wonderland. Somehow a visit seemed attainable.
Like Alice, the tone of Wonderland in this television movie shifts all over the place. There are lighthearted moments such as Alice dancing with Tweedledee and Tweedledum. There are bleak moments, like when the Cheshire Cat sings his grim song entitled, “There’s no way home.”
There are uncomfortable moments like the Mad Hatter’s tea party, which is my favorite Alice tea party scene to date, or the Queen of Hearts singing a catchy ditty about decapitation. Some moments are downright bizarre, two of which include humans transforming into actual live animals.
The Through the Looking Glass portion adds an element of horror when the Jabberwocky appears.
Either they didn’t want to scare the kids too much, or they ran out of costume/effects money, because the Jabberwocky is bad, and not in the so bad it’s good way, just bad. The never ending climax of the movie has a reunion of characters engaged in a Scooby-Doo like chase through the castle where the Jabberwocky does little more than shove them to the ground like a grade school bully. No one ever seems to be in any real danger. I was a complete scaredy-cat as a kid and even I found the Jabberwocky unsatisfying.
There are people who find this movie positively dreadful. I admit that the songs are hit and miss, and the sets and costumes scream made for television. The movie is campy, but it’s a delightful sort of campy. It’s magical, absurd, and weird, just as Wonderland and Looking Glass Land should be. Maybe I am viewing it through an extra thick lens of nostalgia, but there have been versions of Alice before it, and I’m sure there will be versions of Alice to come, but this Alice will always be my Alice.