Alice in Wonderland (1985) poster

Alice in Wonderland (1985)


USA. 1985.


Director – Harry Harris, Teleplay – Paul Zindel, Based on the Novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll, Producer – Irwin Allen, Photography – Fred J. Koenekamp, Music – Morton Stevens, Songs – Steve Allen, Visual Effects – John Dykstra, Special Effects Supervisor – Joseph A. Unsinn, Production Design – Phillip M. Jefferies, Musical Choreography – Gillian Lynne. Production Company – Irwin Allen Productions/Columbia Pictures Television.


Natalie Gregory (Alice), Jayne Meadows (The Queen of Hearts), Red Buttons (The White Rabbit), Ann Jillian (The Red Queen), Carol Channing (The White Queen), Sammy Davis, Jr. (The Caterpillar/Father William), Telly Savalas (The Cheshire Cat), Lloyd Bridges (The White Knight), Anthony Newley (The Mad Hatter), Roddy McDowall (The March Hare), Arte Johnson (The Dormouse), Eydie Gorme (Tweedledee), Steve Lawrence (Tweedledum), Jonathan Winters (Humpty Dumpty), Robert Morley (The King of Hearts), Harvey Korman (The White King), Sid Caesar (The Gryphon), Sherman Hemsley (The Mouse), Jack Warden (The Owl), Steve Allen (The Gentleman in Paper Suit), Sheila Allen (Mother), Martha Raye (The Duchess), Ringo Starr (The Mock Turtle), George Gobel (The Gnat), Karl Malden (The Walrus), Imogene Coca (The Cook), Louis Nye (The Carpenter), Shelley Winters (The Dodo Bird), Ernest Borgnine (The Lion), Beau Bridges (The Unicorn), Patrick Duffy (The Goat), Pat Morita (The Horse), Merv Griffin (The Conductor), Scott Baio (Pat the Pig), Donald O’Connor (The Lory Bird), Donna Mills (The Rose), Sally Struthers (The Tiger Lily), Sharee Gregory (Sister)


Young Alice wanders off into the garden and follows a white rabbit, only to fall down a hole in the ground. She finds herself in Wonderland, a bewildering world of creatures and talking animals where everything seems to operate according to nonsense and rhyme. Alice emerges from Wonderland and returns home, only to enter through the mirror and find herself in another world of nonsense rhyme patterned on a chessboard.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) from Lewis Carroll (a pseudonym for the reverend Charles Dodgson) and its sequel Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There (1872) are key works of fantasy. The characters and Lewis Carroll’s nonsensical rhymes have become embedded in popular culture. There have been an enormous number of film and tv adaptations (see below).

Irwin Allen (1916-91) was one of the great schlock producers and directors of modern cinema. Irwin Allen always seem to approach his films less as dramatic entertainment than as a kind of three-ring circus where the amount of spectacle and the number of big name cast members that he could pack in was the value of the film in itself. Allen first emerged in the 1950s. After producing a handful of comedies, he became a director with various documentary features such as The Sea Around Us (1953) and The Animal World (1956), which featured a dinosaur sequence that contained some of the earliest work of Ray Harryhausen.

Allen then found his calling with Cinemascope spectacles such as The Story of Mankind (1957), The Big Circus (1959), Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961) and Five Weeks in a Balloon (1962). Leaving widescreen spectacle, Allen then branched out into television as a producer, making science-fiction series such as Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-8), Lost in Space (1965-8), The Time Tunnel (1967) and Land of the Giants (1968-70), all of which developed a notoriety for Allen’s flagrant disregard of science and logic.

When interest in Irwin Allen’s particular brand of colourfully ridiculous ‘sci-fi’ tv shows started to wane, he returned to feature filmmaking, producing The Poseidon Adventure (1972). With its blend of melodramatic soap opera, ersatz drama, special effects spectacle and big name stars, The Poseidon Adventure was an enormous box-office success and inaugurated the genre of the Disaster Movie. The disaster movie was Allen’s calling in life and in quick time he directed/produced the likes of The Towering Inferno (1974), The Swarm (1978), Beyond the Poseidon Adventure (1979) and The Day the World Ended/When Time Ran Out (1980), before the genre petered out. Alice in Wonderland would be Allen’s second-to-last production – his last was the tv movie crime drama Outrage (1986) – before his death of a heart-attack at age 75 in 1991.

Alice (Natalie Gregory) and the looking glass in Alice in Wonderland (1985)
Alice (Natalie Gregory) and the looking glass

Allen produces his version of Alice in Wonderland as a big spectacular Broadway Musical for television. It is essentially a pantomime version of the story with name actors running around in not very convincing animal costumes that leave their faces visible. Each one comes on and gets either a cameo line or a song-and-dance number alongside Natalie Gregory’s Alice. The musical film was big in the 1930s and 40s but had died an unhappy death at the box-office in the 1970s after expensive flops like Hello Dolly (1969), On a Clear Day You Can See Forever (1970), Lost Horizon (1973) and At Long Last Love (1975) and was well dead by 1985. Nevertheless, this is exactly what Irwin Allen draws on.

All of the cast with one or two exceptions – Roddy McDowall, Ringo Starr and Robert Morley – are American rather than British. Though Alice in Wonderland is a very British story and would appear to be such from the opening wraparound scenes, none of the actors make any effort at accents. In fact, most of the time we get the characters delivering their lines in broad and brassy New York accents.

Almost all of the star names present come from this Broadway musical and variety show world. It is stocked with Broadway performers such as Anthon Newley and Martha Raye, singer Sammy Davis Jr and comedians such as Carol Channing, Sid Caesar, Red Buttons and Harvey Korman, even talkshow host Merv Griffin. What you have feels less like a telling of a much loved children’s tale than a variety spectacular where aging stars have been wheeled out of mothballs to do a piece.

It is Irwin Allen’s usual way of making his disaster spectacles of the 1970s peopled with as many name actors as he could get together under one roof. It does leave you wondering who exactly the audience for the mini-series was – adults from a generation back to whom these names had some kind of cultural cachet, or else the children’s tale the mini-series was ostensibly presented as where surely children of the day would have no knowledge of who such names were.

Alice (Natalie Gregory) with the Gryphon (Sid Caesar) and the Mock Turtle (Ringo Starr) in Alice in Wonderland (1985)
Alice (Natalie Gregory) with the Gryphon (Sid Caesar) (l) and the Mock Turtle (Ringo Starr) (r)

In reality, what we end up with is an adaptation of a nonsense fantasy tale that is lacking in any real magic. It is more interested in being a loud, brassy and unsubtle Broadway musical where Alice encounters strange creatures that sing songs to her. What is sorely lacking is the nonsense conundrums of Lewis Carroll’s writing – they are there because the story requires them to be but in moribund numbers enacted by aging Hollywood faces without any real feeling for the material. It is an Alice in Wonderland adaptation that never takes its own flight of nonsense fantasy – the most surreal it ever gets it a chorus-line of singing oysters, played by dancers with shells covering their bodies and purple leggings protruding below. The one thing that Carroll isn’t is musical numbers about characters singing about how they love Alice and miss her.

The production is ponderous. It feels exactly like Allen back when he was making Lost in Space and outer space was inhabited by madly over-acting guest stars and chintzy tinsel sets. Allen hires John Dykstra, who was considered one of the top effects men in the world as a result of supervising the visual effects on Star Wars (1977), but Dykstra’s works is unexceptional – the Jabberwock looks like a big rubber monster, while the train journey Alice takes across Looking Glass Land is an obvious model.

Irwin Allen’s other works of genre interest are:– as producer/director/writer of the equally notorious The Story of Mankind (1957) wherein various historical figures up in Heaven debate about whether to destroy humanity; as producer/director/writer of the remake of The Lost World (1960); as director/producer/writer of the film Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1961); as producer of the tv series’ Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea (1964-8), Lost in Space (1965-8), The Time Tunnel (1967) and Land of the Giants (1968-70); as director/producer of City Beneath the Sea/One Hour to Doomsday (1971), a failed tv pilot, which Allen then released cinematically; as producer of The Time Travelers (1976), another unsold tv pilot, written by Rod Serling; as producer of the tv mini-series The Return of Captain Nemo (1978), which was theatrically released internationally as The Amazing Captain Nemo (1978); and as director/producer of the legendarily bad killer bee film The Swarm (1978).

The other screen adaptations of Alice in Wonderland are:- Alice in Wonderland (1903), a silent British short; Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1910), a silent American short; Alice in Wonderland (1915); Alice Through the Looking Glass (1928); Alice in Wonderland (1931), the first sound version; Paramount’s Alice in Wonderland (1933) with an all-star cast of the day including W.C. Fields, Cary Grant and Gary Cooper; the partly stop-motion animated French Alice in Wonderland (1949); the classic Disney animated version Alice in Wonderland (1951); the NBC tv version Alice in Wonderland (1955); the modernised Hanna-Barbera animated tv special Alice in Wonderland, or What’s a Nice Kid Like You Doing in a Place Like This? (1966); the NBC tv production Alice Through the Looking Glass (1966); the all-star British film Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1972) featuring Michael Crawford, Ralph Richardson, Peter Sellers, Spike Milligan and Dudley Moore; the BBC tv production Alice Through the Looking Glass (1974); the Italian tv mini-series In the World of Alice (1974); a 1976 Argentinean film version; a pornographic version Alice in Wonderland (1976); a Spanish film version Alice in Spanish Wonderland (1979); the Belgian film Alice (1982), which features equivalents of the Wonderland characters in the modern world; a US tv production Alice in Wonderland (1982); a US tv version Alice at the Palace (1982) with Meryl Streep as Alice; a BBC musical version A Dream of Alice (1982) with Jenny Agutter as Alice; a British tv series Alice in Wonderland (1985); a BBC tv series Alice in Wonderland (1986); the animated Alice Through the Looking Glass (1987); having been combined with the Care Bears in the animated The Care Bears Adventure in Wonderland (1987); Jan Svankmajer’s bizarrely brilliant Claymation animated Alice (1988); Woody Allen’s modernised urban spin Alice (1990); the US tv series Alice in Wonderland (1991); the British tv version Alice Through the Looking Glass (1998) with Kate Beckinsale as Alice and an all-star cast; the Hallmark tv version Alice in Wonderland (1999) with Tina Majorino as Alice and an all-star cast; Alice’s Misadventures in Wonderland (2004), a modernised indie film take on the story; Alice (2009), a modernised tv mini-series starring Caterina Scorsone as Alice entering into a dark science-fictional wonderland; Malice in Wonderland (2009), a modernised British film that translates Wonderland into an urban environment; Tim Burton’s big budget Alice in Wonderland (2010) and its sequel Alice Through the Looking Glass (2016); Alice in Murderland (2010), an Alice in Wonderland-themed slasher film; Alyce (2011), another modernised urban translation; the modernised tv series Once Upon a Time in Wonderland (2013-4); and The Other Side of the Mirror/Alice: The Darker Side of the Mirror (2016), a dark retelling. Also of note is Dennis Potter’s tv play Alice (1965), which explores Lewis Carroll’s relationship with Alice Liddell, the young girl who became the model for Alice, and the later film Dreamchild (1985) in which the real-life Alice reminisces back on her memories of Lewis Carroll and the writing of the story.

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