Alice's Adventures in Wonderland Review
Of the multiple filmic adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s famed novel, William Sterling 1972 version, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, is perhaps the most overtly directed towards a children’s audience. It’s all-star cast including Peter Sellers may prompt memories of Jonathan Miller’s 1965 take on the classic for the BBC, but really these films are polar opposites. Whereas this earlier adaptation eschewed anthropomorphism in favour of analysis (and was all the richer for it), Sterling takes Carroll’s prose at face value, rendering it as a series of episodic, prettified tableaux.
As such it is perhaps the least distinctive Alice in Wonderland yet filmed, lacking the idiosyncrasies of Dennis Potter’s or Jan Svankmajer’s borrowings (adaptations being too concrete a phrase) or even the distinctive tones of the two 1951 versions, one by Disney, the other by puppeteer Lou Bunin, whatever their respective merits. You could argue that this distinct lack flavour makes Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland fairly unique amongst its bedfellows, but then Carroll’s novel is such a flexible source - cultural figures from Mickey Mouse to Hello Kitty having had their own adventures in wonderland or through the looking glass - that any blandness should never be an option. Moreover, Sterling, who also wrote the screenplay, doesn’t really have the excuse of having made a “children’s film” as Carroll was going for the same audience, and his piece is hardly lacking in depth.
Sterling has, however, used this concept of a “children’s film” as an excuse for some rather shoddy production values. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is marked out by its artificiality, all pastel colours (blues and pinks especially) and cardboard sets. The attempt to recreate the popular image of Wonderland is there for all to see, but in doing so any similar attempt at either mood or atmosphere are completely forgone. Consider Miller’s version again, with its naturalistic settings and characters, plus Ravi Shankar’s exquisite score, and it’s impossible not to remember its sense of “always [being] six o’clock”. Here, however, the set design is so obvious - not to mention so obviously fake - that we can never get past its actual design; we never sense Wonderland itself, but rather a recreation of it.
The various make-up designs also have this air of artificiality and, apart from some disturbing frog designs, rarely convince. Moreover, they render the majority of the all-star cast almost entirely unrecognisable and as such can only be recognised by their vocal talents (Michael Crawford gives himself away immediately as the White Rabbit). What’s so odd about this is that surely the various cast members - as is often typical for various Wonderland adaptations, consider the 1930s Hollywood production with W.C. Fields, Cary Grant and Gary Cooper - are the film’s major selling point. But then why cast Spike Milligan, say, or Michael Hordern if they can only be identified once the closing credits reveals who their characters were? As such the only remaining point of distinction is that Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is also a musical, one with songs and score composed by John Barry. Sadly, the former are distinctly ordinary and largely forgettable, whilst the latter is overly insistent. Moreover, the systematic placing of the numbers within the narrative only serves to emphasis the episodic qualities. Which also serves to make the film far more than it should be. One for Carroll completists only.
The big plus point with regards to picture quality is that Oracle have released the film in its original 2.35:1 Todd-AO scope ratio. Sadly, it has also been rendered non-anamorphically and, frankly, rather unattractively. Things start off especially poorly with the opening credits being barely legible, although there are occasional signs of improvement as the film progresses. That said, the colours do remain a little too harsh - especially the greens - and artefacting is a near constant occurrence. The sound on the other hand is really quite agreeable. Perhaps a little too trebly during the musical numbers, it otherwise remains crisp and clear throughout and adhere to the original mono recording (although here it is split over the front two channels). With regards to extras, none appear on the disc itself although the film is being packaged with copies of Carroll’s original novel.