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"Alice" Blu-ray Review

Alice (2009 miniseries) Blu-ray cover art - click to buy from Amazon.com Alice
Miniseries & Blu-ray Disc Details

Director: Nick Willing / Writers: Nick Willing (screenplay), Lewis Carroll (books)

Cast: Caterina Scorsone (Alice), Andrew Lee Potts (Hatter), Matt Frewer (White Knight), Philip Winchester (Jack Chase), Tim Curry (Dodo), Harry Dean Stanton (Caterpillar), Timothy Webber (Carpenter), Zak Santiago (10 of Clubs), Charlotte Sullivan (Duchess), Colm Meaney (King of Hearts), Kathy Bates (Queen of Hearts), Alan Gray (White Rabbit), Eugene Lipinski (Doctor Dee/Doctor Dum), Nancy Robertson (Dormouse), Tom Heaton (Duck), Eileen Barrett (Owl), Alex Diakun (Rat Catcher), Dave 'Squatch' Ward (Walrus), Geoff Redknap (Mad March)

Original Air Dates: December 6-7, 2009 / Running Time: 184 Minutes (2 Parts) / Rating: Not Rated

1.78:1 Widescreen, 5.1 DTS-HD (English) / Subtitles: English, Spanish
Blu-ray Release Date: March 2, 2010 / Suggested Retail Price: $29.99
Single-sided, dual-layered disc (BD-50) / Blue Eco-Friendly Keepcase
Also available on Standard DVD ($19.98 SRP)

Buy Blu-ray from Amazon.com • Buy DVD from Amazon.com

By Kelvin Cedeno

Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have made an indelible mark on pop culture. They are stories that have become so ingrained in the minds of the general public that even those unfamiliar with them can still recognize the characters and select quotes. The novels have inspired everything from literature and music to games and film. There have been direct adaptations and sequels, plus others offer original stories simply with references to the classic books. The Syfy television network miniseries Alice is somehow all of these and yet also none of them.

This isn't the first time Syfy has turned a classic story into modern science fiction. They did so back in 2007 with the miniseries Tin Man, based on L. Frank Baum's The Wonderful Wizard of Oz. The program set records for the cable channel, so it's no surprise that they'd seek similar stories to "reimagine." With Tim Burton and Disney's 3-D extravaganza making such a splash, Syfy's timing for Syfy couldn't have been better.

Upon entering Wonderland, Alice (Caterina Scorsone) discovers a bottle marked "Drink Me," but its intentions are altogether different than one would expect. The Hatter (Andrew Lee Potts) isn’t terribly mad, which allows him to be a suitable love interest for Alice this time around.

Alice begins with the title character (played by Caterina Scorsone) at a crossroads in her life. She's been searching for her missing father to no avail and has difficulty opening up to people as a result of his absence. This affects her relationship with boyfriend Jack Chase (Philip Winchester), becoming a major issue when he wants to take the next step forward.
There's little time to dwell on this, though, as Jack is kidnapped in the middle of the night by some mysterious thugs and a man known as White Rabbit (Alan Gray). The abductors manage to get away with Jack, but White Rabbit lags behind long enough for Alice to follow him to their whereabouts. What she doesn't expect is to fall through a mirror leading to a strange world.

This Wonderland is a dark and twisted place ruled by the Queen of Hearts (Kathy Bates). Despite her tyranny, she's able to keep residents at bay with drug-like toxins extracted from the emotions of humans (known here as "Oysters"). Alice discovers that Jack's kidnappers, who work for the Queen, were after a ring containing the Stone of Wonderland. This stone controls the looking glass portal between Wonderland and our world, and it so happens that Jack gave this ring to Alice before his capture. With the help of the stealthy Hatter (Andrew Lee Potts) and absent-minded Charlie the White Knight (Matt Frewer), Alice must keep the ring safe without losing her head in the process.

Director and writer Nick Willing is no stranger to Alice in Wonderland, having directed a more straightforward adaptation in NBC's star-studded 1999 TV movie. The approach he takes this time is hard to categorize. It's vaguely an adaptation in terms of character names and settings. Then again, even with a somewhat recognizable beginning and end, most of what comes in between bears little resemblance to the original Carroll stories. To make matters more complicated, this miniseries plays out as a pseudo-sequel in that the characters openly acknowledge the existence and previous visit of the iconic Alice (who, unlike in Tim Burton's film, isn't the same as our lead heroine).

It's that last portion that really raises more questions than answers. Apparently, the original Alice arrived in Wonderland 150 years before this film's events, and it was her visit that shook up the way their society worked. If that's the case, though, why does this Wonderland bear no resemblance to the one she saw? There are no anthropomorphic animals or food that changes one's size. There aren't even any mad people, save for Charlie. The characters are all called by animal or playing card names for no apparent reason other than for the sake of theme. It could be said that this is an alternate presentation and that little Alice's adventure took place in this science fiction wasteland, but it gets more convoluted.

The Queen of Hearts (Kathy Bates) doesn't respond well to threats whereas the King (Colm Meaney) just doesn't respond at all. Alice encounters the fearsome Jabberwocky in the woods, but unlike Irwin Allen's 1985 miniseries and Tim Burton's 2010 film, the creature plays a minor part.

Carroll's book is clearly shown here in our world several times. Did classic Alice recount her experiences to Carroll, who later twisted them into a child's fantasy (as imagined in Frank Beddor's Looking Glass Wars book series)?
If modern Alice is a different person altogether, why did she also have a cat named Dinah as a child? The linkage to the past admittedly isn't as frustrating as the one found in Tin Man, which was also incidentally directed by Willing. Still, one wonders why this befuddling point is introduced at all since it bears little significance to the storyline.

Viewers probably, and rightfully, care more about what the miniseries is like on its own terms than how it fits into Carroll's canon. The answer to that is a mixed bag. It feels like pretty standard Syfy fare. Outside of the vague Wonderland theme, there's little to distinguish this from the network's other original programming. That's perhaps its greatest setback. There's a glaring lack of fun and surrealism, both of which are replaced by drama and grittiness. Trying to create something serious and down-to-earth is far from a crime, but the subject matter of another world (Wonderland or not) should come with a sense of awe and uniqueness about it. Instead, most of what's presented is rather ordinary, afraid to truly explore the science fiction angle that only somewhat lingers over this. This is probably where Willing's own Tin Man succeeds. For all its muddled plotting, that had a more distinctive and memorable presentation than Alice does.

Not all is lost, though. The look of the miniseries is quite striking at times, opting for a mix between a retro 1960s motif and a barren dystopia. The two styles may seem at odds, but they manage to co-exist pretty well. One can only imagine how much more successful this could've been with more surreal and odd cues for enhancement.

The cast as a whole seems fine, although Bates looks rather bored. The standout is Matt Frewer as Charlie the White Knight. His character is not only in tune with its literary counterpart, but also provides almost all of the show's humor and heart. Frewer is the only cast member who seems to be fully enjoying himself as his zeal comes through. Even with that in mind, he still reins himself in enough to give his more dramatic scenes depth and honesty otherwise missing from the rest of the show.

Alice is more than viewable, especially for Carroll fans who will enjoy its references and allusions. Even so, it comes across as a disappointment. In a turn of cruel irony, it manages to do the impossible: making the world of Wonderland pedestrian.

Note that Alice's DVD and Blu-ray releases extend the miniseries by approximately ten minutes. There's nothing truly significant gained here as it's mostly cut lines reinstated into existing scenes. Still, it's nice to have a fuller cut.

In one of the show's few surreal scenes, Doctors Dee and Dum (Eugene Lipinski) interrogate Alice as to the Stone of Wonderland's whereabouts. Mad March (Geoff Redknap) has a robotic head more reminiscent of the White Rabbit than the March Hare as he scours the countryside for Alice.

VIDEO and AUDIO

Alice comes to Blu-ray in its original broadcast ratio of 1.78:1. The results are, for the most part, quite good. The problem is perhaps the source itself. The miniseries alternates between different levels of brightness and color. The brighter scenes look excellently sharp and colorful, making the CGI more attractive than on the initial airing. On the other had, darker scenes lose detail and exhibit digital artifacting. These portions prevent the transfer from excelling, but the positives outweigh the negatives.

The DTS-HD 5.1 track offers more consistency. As expected of a television miniseries, this one carries a front-heavy track. Dialogue has no issues with intelligibility. The surrounds do feature a surprising bit of ambience, particularly in crowd scenes. The score also broadens the sound field up a bit. Certain sequences, such as the Jabberwocky attack, contain good surround mixing, as well. It's a track that does what's expected of it and even goes a bit further on occasion.

BONUS FEATURES, MENUS, and PACKAGING

A look at the Blu-ray cover indicates no special features. A look at the bonus features menu (which only contains a bookmarking option) confirms this. As with Wonderland, though, things aren't always what they seem. Tucked away in the Set Up menu is an audio commentary
Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland
by director Nick Willing and actress Caterina Scorsone. The lively duo covers a mix of topics throughout the miniseries' over 3-hour runtime. The primary focus is on character psychology. Willing explains how experiences in each character's past affected how they respond to the current events of the story. Along the way, Scorsone reminisces with production stories, and comparisons are even made to Willing's 1999 adaptation. The only letdown is that Willing never fully explains the Wonderland backstory and how it relates to the novels. Otherwise, this is an engaging track that leads to a better appreciation of the series.

The main menu features a montage of character clips set against an animated spiral. The pop-up menu expands upward and is oddly cumbersome considering how few selections there are.

The disc comes housed in an eco-friendly keep case. Inside is a two-sided pamphlet that advertises other Lionsgate Blu-rays and offers a warning about potential firmware upgrades needed for some players.

Charlie (Matt Frewer), Alice (Caterina Scorsone), and Hatter (Andrew Lee Potts) survey the Wonderland ruins that disrupt their path in the forest. In this version of Wonderland, mechanical flamingos are used as flying transportation devices rather than croquet mallets.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

There's potential to Alice, but it's mostly stampeded on by a conventional science fiction approach that does little to distinguish itself. What unique qualities this miniseries does have lead to too many questions and loose ends. The Blu-ray image varies depending on the lighting conditions, but the audio is solid. It's a shame the commentary is hidden away since it's quite strong. Those who enjoyed Tin Man and/or Alice in Wonderland tales in general may find this worth a rental. For science fiction fans, there's not much here that hasn't been done elsewhere and with more zest.

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Reviewed March 11, 2010.



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