Just when you think network television has shrunk to nothing but cheap "reality" specials, hyped newsmagazine interviews and tired sitcoms following the same bankrupt formula, along comes a grand and magical production like "Alice in Wonderland" tomorrow night on NBC.
It's almost enough to restore your faith in network TV.
Hallmark Entertainment's Robert Halmi Sr. -- he of the big-budget "Gulliver's Travels" and "Merlin" -- joins forces with Jim Henson's Creature Shop and a super-talented cast to deliver a dizzying, $21 million masterpiece of silliness, song and special effects. Halmi does Lewis Carroll's masterpiece proud.
The first thing fans of the book should know is that the script takes the liberty of adding a new opening sequence that reframes the entire tale. This version opens with Alice (Tina Majorino) running away from her singing debut at a tea party held by her parents. She falls asleep in the nearby woods and dreams Wonderland.
Her journey and experiences in the dream give her the courage when she awakes to return to the party and perform. The new scenes by writer Peter Barnes are clever, engaging and, at the end, even a little touching.
But it's the trip through Wonderland that matters, isn't it? I have always read "Alice" as a female version of the Hero Quest, a metaphor for a young girl's coming-of-age journey through adolescence.
The forest, the talking-animal trickster figures, the danger, the frightening changes in size -- it bears all the earmarks of the classic myth found in virtually every culture. And "Alice" follows the classic structure: separation of the hero from his or her community, descent into another realm, battle or engagement with the forces of that realm, transformation of the hero and return to his/her community a new and empowered person.
All of that is going on at one level with NBC's "Alice," not that you're likely to think about it or care as you watch. There is so much razzle-dazzle for the eye and the ear that, after a while, you simply sit back and let this "Alice" flow over you.
The special effects are stunning, starting with Alice's first stop after she falls down the rabbit hole and hits bottom. Things not only get "curiouser and curiouser" for Alice as she shrinks and grows with the potion she drinks and cake she eats; the special effects give the feel of real danger. Tiny Alice almost drowns in the tears that Giant Alice had cried only moments before as she begged White Rabbit for help.
By the time Alice reaches the last stop in Wonderland, you will think there isn't a special effect or set design left that can top what you have already seen. But you ain't seen nothin' till you've seen the court of giant playing cards presided over by the King (Simon Russell Beale) and Queen of Hearts (Miranda Richardson).
As terrific as the special effects are, what won me over to this "Alice" in the end was the performances. Majorino seems perfect -- a serious, almost solemn child who has carefully applied herself and learned all the rules of proper society only to have all the rules turned upside-down on her.
I don't know if it is Majorino or director Nick Willing who deserves the credit, but you are seduced by each shy smile and tentative moment of cautious enjoyment that Alice allows herself.
What a cast: Whoopi Goldberg as Cheshire Cat, Robbie Coltrane at Tweedledum, George Wendt as Tweedledee, Peter Ustinov as Walrus, Ben Kingsley as Major Caterpillar, Martin Short as the Mad Hatter and Gene Wilder as Mock Turtle.
Short has gotten the lion's share of publicity and early raves. And he is Ed-Grimley-marvelous doing his music hall song and strut, accompanied by March Hare on a banjo. But part of the energy in his scenes is the result of special effects. Through digital enhancement, Short's head is made triple its size for an effect that is mesmerizing. And March Hare is actor Adrian Gettley inside a Henson-made head featuring asymmetrical eyes that are nearly hypnotic.
My vote for best supporting performance goes to Wilder, who also gets to sing and dance and do a little music-hall schtick. His Mock Turtle has the aid of some special effects, too, but it is the actor who makes you believe in the gentle goodness of the character who serves as Alice's ultimate guide to adulthood.
Halmi's great sin is excess, and my one major criticism of "Alice" is that he overdoes some of the early special effects to the point where I suspect they might frighten young children.
NBC's "Alice in Wonderland" is grand and deep enough to be the stuff of which dreams and psychic imagery are made. It's not often any more that you can say that about anything on network TV.
'Alice in Wonderland'
When: 8 p.m.-11 p.m. tomorrow
Where: NBC (WBAL, Channel 11)
Pub Date: 2/27/99