December 4, 2009 / 1:49 AM / 10 years ago

"Alice" skimps on story's essential weirdness

NEW YORK (Hollywood Reporter) - Alice is a popular gal. Lewis Carroll might have dreamed her up more than 150 years ago, but she keeps tumbling out of the same imaginative hole year after year: Next year will bring Tim Burton’s version to the big screen, and several key members behind Syfy’s new two-night miniseries “Alice” also were behind the star-studded 1999 rethink for NBC.

Still, Syfy’s model — airing Sunday and Monday nights (December 6-7) — has a hard time gaining traction. Is “Alice” fantasy? Thriller? Action? Camp? The answer: Yes. That and more.

One night, judo instructor Alice (nonblond Caterina Scorsone) pursues the kidnappers of her boyfriend (Philip Winchester, in a spot-on Julian Sands impersonation) through a mirror, landing in a politically tumultuous Wonderland. The plot briefly goes “Wizard of Oz” — creator-writer-director Nick Willing reimagined that tale as 2007’s “Tin Man” for the same network — as Alice wears purloined accessories (here, a ring) that the evil leader (Queen of Hearts Kathy Bates, sporting a flowing muumuu and a wavering accent) needs in order to, well, be evil.

Alice’s journey winds her through a maze of winking references to Carroll’s books — a Jabberwock constructed from classic illustrations; the genuinely creepy Drs. Dum and Dee. Hatter turns into a love interest, and Matt Frewer’s ancient White Knight gives John Cleese a run for his money as a truly silly person.

Alas, that’s about as anarchic as it gets. There’s plenty of fantasy (flying mechanical flamingos) and horror (a roomful of eyes), but there’s also too much running around without sweating and lines like “spin another roulette wheel and it’ll be your last.”

What ultimately sinks “Alice” is that it is too normal. Carroll’s nonsense, anarchy and druggy weirdness always turned the tale into a fevered dream. Here, Alice disappears instead into a tired missing-father subplot. Not that she, or the miniseries, has to capture Carroll’s brand of insanity, but without it, what’s left are semi-fancy special effects and sets borrowed from “Sleeper.”

“All mimsy were the borogoves,” Carroll wrote. “Instant gratification is a very complex business,” Willing writes. One doesn’t need an oversize mirror to figure which is worth a second look.

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