Alice in Wonderland: Part Two (1985)
I’m not trying to be a scold, but for the generation of kids who grew up with binge TV, you have no idea the kind of pain and anguish you narrowly missed. Thanks to Netflix and the rest of its ilk, the ability to immediately watch the follow-up to any TV show is commonplace now. In fact, nowadays when a so-called “regular show” only releases one episode a week, some folks are probably pissed. Like, what’s up with that?! Put ‘em all out there! As Jennifer Love Hewitt said: If you think I’m just gonna strip off my clothes and do you-wait, no. Wrong movie. She said: What are you waiting for?! My sister and I, assuming we did indeed see the original broadcast or at least a repeat, we had to wait 24 excruciating hours to discover the fate of poor Alice (Natalie Gregory), whom we’d last seen being terrorized by the horrible Jabberwocky in Irwin Allen’s all-star TV event, Alice in Wonderland (1985).
If you perused my previous entry, you’ll be familiar with most of the history behind this infamously bonkers two-parter, produced at the height of 80’s mini-series mania. The first part was essentially a faithful adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which quite seamlessly flows into Carroll’s sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, for the second part. What remains remarkably distinctive about this revamp, written by the great Paul Zindel, is that while both films feature campy and outrageous performances and imagery, each half accurately represents the general consensus most fans have about the books. Part 1 is disjointed and fragmented, featuring insane characters with little to no rhyme or reason. Well, there are those hit-and-miss Steve Allen songs, so I guess there’s a bit of rhyme here and there. For those who haven’t read the books but have seen the 1951 animated Disney version, it’s fascinating how liberally it borrowed from both novels, though mainly book number one.
In the far superior second half of the TV movie, the theme of maturity and growing up is still front and center, but it feels more structured and less chaotic. This was a common reaction to Carroll’s sequel, with some readers claiming it lost some magic due to its lack of spontaneity while others felt it was a step forward in narrative storytelling thanks to a stronger throughline and a clear goal. For the film, Zindel and director Harry Harris skip past Alice actually entering Looking-Glass Land, opting instead to show her already there, despite not stepping through a mirror, as in the book.
The Jabberwocky inexplicably disappears but casts a dark shadow over the rest of the film. As a manifestation of Alice’s childlike fears, it rears its fearsome head whenever she becomes distraught and frightened. As Alice cowered from the monster, she knocked all of the red and white chess pieces off a board, introducing Carroll’s other theme: Duality. A mirror represents the dual image of whatever it reflects, so the red and white chess pieces are essentially the same, yet different. As Alice continues her journey, she’ll often encounter duo’s, most famously Tweedledee and Tweedledum, who represent opposite sides of the same coin. As a personal note, I do think the book and film fail to teach one important lesson: Never talk to strangers. Especially these psychos.
A game of chess represents order and structure; a metaphorical interpretation of Carroll’s approach to his sequel. Still, that doesn’t mean it’s any less bizarre, especially since the chess pieces are, well...alive. Amongst the pieces are The Red King (Patrick Culliton, The Beguiled and a member of Allen’s stock company), The Red Queen (the excellent Ann Jillian, a Broadway performer and Golden Globe winner for The Ann Jillian Story, SMH...type-casting), The White King (comedy legend Harvey Korman, Blazing Saddles, The Carol Burnett Show), and most important of all, The White Queen (Tony winner Carol Channing, Broadway legend – Hello Dolly!).
Any time this semi-forgotten TV movie is written about or discussed, there’s always one constant. Carol Channing is unforgettable. Overall, I find the women in this entire enterprise come off slightly better than their male co-stars. Perhaps they simply handle the camp aspects better. In that sense, Channing steals the movie. While nearly every other performer merely acts crazy, Carol Channing appears legitimately certifiable. Of course, she wasn’t crazy. She was, to put it simply, one-of-a-kind. What makes her so brilliant and memorable is that the role of a wacky queen fits her like a glove, taking advantage of her unique screen persona and extreme theatricality. I was fortunate enough to see Channing perform as Dolly Levi in a touring production, and her stage presence is something to behold. She may be the only actor in the film who can 100% match Carroll’s vision of a living cartoon.
“Mah baby!” Channing screams. Alice has inadvertently placed the child of The White Queen on the chess board in an effort to help. Utilizing some pretty rough rear projection, we see Alice trying to communicate with the pieces, but it’s hopeless. They simply don’t hear her. She lifts Channing up, who thinks her floatation is due to a tornado. Down the hallway, she comes upon a portrait of an owl, which magically changes into Jack Warden, in well-designed owl make-up. Even though Warden was a two-time Oscar nominee and one of the finest character actors ever (The Verdict, Heaven Can Wait), I guess they figured it didn’t matter if he was unrecognizable. He’s at least somewhat helpful to Alice in that he doesn’t mince words. She created the Jabberwocky in her own mind, and now everyone in Looking-Glass Land is in danger. He warns that everything is backward here and Alice suddenly finds herself back in the forest.
The constant array of colorful flowers masks the cheap sets, but that doesn’t mean flowers can’t be pricks, with two Knot’s Landing actresses playing a rose and a daisy, respectively (Donna Mills, Laura Carlson) and Sally Struthers (All in the Family) as a tiger lily. She calls Alice “stupid,” and it still pisses me off that my sister didn’t ask about this movie when she worked with Struthers in a regional production The Full Monty musical.
In a gorgeous matte shot, Alice is led to a checkered field by The Red Queen and informed she must reach the ‘eighth square’ to become a queen. Alice has no interest in becoming a queen, but she’s told it could mean going home. One confusing bit, that I regard as an error in judgment, arrives when Alice hitches a ride on a train labeled Wonderland Railways. Since we haven’t seen Alice step through a mirror, we assume she’s still in Wonderland, yet everyone around her calls it Looking-Glass Land. It’s a strange mistake that feels as if the train fabricators simply assumed the entire film was set in Wonderland, so they labeled the train cars accordingly.
Inside the car, Alice becomes more assertive and less demure, challenging the constant berating by The Gentleman in Paper Suit (Steve Allen, making his cameo), The Horse (Pat Morita, The Karate Kid, Honeymoon in Vegas) and the particularly dickish Goat (Patrick Duffy, Dallas, Scuzzlebutt’s leg). Merv Griffin shows up as The Conductor and the scene plods along, not particularly memorably. They insinuate Alice knows nothing and discuss the value of a word and a minute. Apparently, it’s a thousand dollars. Okay... The only bit that I definitely remembered was when Alice has to stop the train and yanks on the Goat’s chin due to the lack of an emergency cord. She’s kicked off the train.
In an inspired casting choice, Tweedledee and Tweedledum are portrayed by the dynamic musical duo of Eydie Gorme and Steve Lawrence. Consummate performers, they’re involvement is a perfect example of a well-oiled production machine. They left the Las Vegas casino where they were performing around midnight, arrived in Los Angeles, rehearsed, got in their fat suits, filmed their parts, and were flown back to Las Vegas in time for their next show. It reminds me of Bradley Cooper’s hastily-shot performance in the Wet Hot American Summer prequel series. Steve and Eydie are fortunate to get two of the catchier songs from Allen’s score, the first being “How d’you do, Shake Hands.” It’s a fun number and they don’t come off as particularly cruel to Alice, which is a plus.
The three wander off to an actual beach, which is bit jarring, like when David Sedaris would describe how California soap operas were unbelievable because they’d go outside. While the song “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” with Carroll’s lyrics musicalized by Allen, is bouncy and fun, this scene drags on endlessly. Decent walrus makeup on top of Oscar winner Karl Malden’s noggin doesn’t distract from the flimsy flipper dragging along behind him. It appears as though his ankles are tied together, like he just escaped from a kidnapping. The Carpenter (Louis Nye, The Beverly Hillbillies, a Steve Allen show co-star) shows up and they attempt to lead a group of delicious oysters to their doom. The oysters are represented by horrifying humanoid hybrids, with giant shell torsos and lavender dancers' legs. The oysters get eaten, Alice calls them “monsters” and she’s off again.
Channing shows up, muttering about “bread and butter,” and Alice helps her re-attach her shawl. She launches into the best song of the film, “Jam Tomorrow, Jam Yesterday” which she performs with so much energy and pizzazz that it truly doesn’t matter that it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. She shimmies and shakes like a loon. It's a real show-stopper.
Harry Harris’ assumed sadism and hatred toward children once again arrives when Channing, after pricking her finger, which she incidentally mentions happening before it happens, the world being backward after all, lets Alice know she feels better. “Muuuuuccchhhh Beeeehhhhhhtttteeeerrrrrr...” before turning into a sheep. It would merely be silly if she didn’t deliver the line with such creepy intensity. Upping the ante on the fear factor, a giant vulture swoops down and chases Alice, with ominous closeups on its large black talons hovering above. Alice hilariously deadpans: Phew! It’s only a giant bird.
World-famous nursery rhyme star Humpty Dumpty appears, played by the highly influential comedy icon Jonathan Winters. “You’ve been snooping around doors!” Humpty calls down from his wall when Alice points out his bow, which is clearly a crevat. He’s a jerk to her, which is par for the course in this movie, but the funniest bits were never captured as Winters performed a comedy routine off-camera while some technical problems were worked out. We’re thankfully spared yet another musical number when Winters begins to tap dance but gets cut short. Alice becomes afraid again and the Jabberwocky arrives to chase after her. She runs into a shit-ton of spider webs along with a huge tarantula. She actually considers whether it’s worth letting the Jabberwocky get her rather than pushing through some thick webs with a slow-moving spider. Dude, seriously?
Harvey Korman and his messenger (John Stamos, Full House, duh!) sing about “The Lion and The Unicorn” before finding...you guessed it. A lion and a unicorn. Stamos is fine, but Korman does a decent job, hamming it up both figuratively and literally by asking Stamos for “a ham sandwich.” Another reason the second part seems to work much better is the overall catchiness of Steve Allen’s songs this time around.
The Lion (Oscar winner Ernest Borgnine, Marty, and so many great and terrible films: The Oscar, The Devil’s Rain, etc.) and The Unicorn (the underrated Beau Bridges, Norma Rae, The Fabulous Baker Boys) are engaged in an epic battle. Upon seeing Alice, The Unicorn absolutely freaks out, having been under the impression that children were “fabulous monsters.” In a simple but magical bit of dialogue, Bridges beautifully delivers the line, “If I believe in you, then you believe in me. Is that a bargain?” Borgnine stomps about, inquiring whether Alice is “animal, vegetable, or mineral?” One of my favorite memories of the film is the looking-glass cake cutting, which always blew my mind since it never stays cut. Everything is backward, so it must be served first, then cut. The actors have major trouble picking up the large pieces of cake due to their awkward paws and hooves. A loud drumming noise which only Alice can hear drives her off. Why? Go fuck yourself.
The chess theme returns, with a Red Knight (Don Matheson, Land of the Giants) on horseback threatening to take Alice prisoner. A White Knight (Lloyd Bridges, Sea Hunt, Airplane!, father of Beau and Jeff) rides to the rescue and defeats the Red Knight. This bit is tense, not for its epic fight choreography, but for two middle-aged men who might break a hip. The White Knight is kind and chivalrous and Allen recycles a piece he wrote years earlier, “We Are Dancing,” in a scene of breathtaking fairy tale charm. Bridges nails it here, never coming off as creepy or lecherous as he valiantly leads Alice out of the misty woods. White Knight: Farewell, fair maiden. Alice: Farewell, gallant knight. Good stuff.
A crown appears on Alice’s head and she imagines herself as a queen. The Red and White Queen jump cut into existence, informing her of a party in her honor. One song after another arrive, with the fast-paced “Can You Do Addition” duet followed by the quietly affecting “Emotions,” well-sung, if a bit broadly performed by Ann Jillian. The notion of emotions being inescapable brings a poignancy to Alice’s budding maturity.
She enters a castle and in a sweeping crane shot, a banquet is revealed on a fabulous set. Many core members of the cast, presumably the ones who were most available, show up to celebrate Alice’s coronation. She pisses them off when she expresses her gratitude but requests to go home instead. The other queens inform her a present has arrived for her. In a surprisingly abrupt jump scare, she opens the package and The Jabberwocky emerges in all it’s awful glory. The effect of the large monster coming out of the seemingly small box appears to have been achieved by simply setting the scales to inflate as soon as the lid was pulled off. It’s rather impressive.
Chaos erupts and everyone scatters. The Jabberwocky is particularly startling in a low-angle shot, which almost appears animated as steam shoots out of its nostrils, fire spews from his mouth, the blood-red eyes beam, and nasty liquid drips from its jaw and neck. It even flies above the crowd. After a bit of hide-and-seek, everyone abandons Alice, with Channing leaving a deep impression by bellowing “uhhhhhh” in a low tone. Alone in the hall, the creature nearly grabs her, but The White Knight arrives and courageously battles the beast. It nearly bites his head off and I always felt bad for the Knight, likely due to how brave and kind he was to Alice, who is horrified that he could be killed.
The owl returns and tells her she “must be brave” or else she’ll “never grow up. Never be more than a child.” She steps through a mirror into her own world and, for a moment, it seems that everything will be all right. Another evil fake-out, as The Jabberwocky shoves its awful head through the mirror and reaches for her. She stands up to it, yelling; I’m grown up now! I don’t believe in you! “I don’t believe in you!” is repeated over and over again. She collapses in an armchair and is awakened by her mother, indicating the entire experience was merely a dream. She’s delighted to find that her mother and father have decided she’s old enough to join them for tea. Hearing voices, she turns to the mirror, where Ann Jillian, Carol Channing, Red Buttons, Anthony Newley, Arte Johnson, Roddy McDowall, Lloyd Bridges, Jayne Meadows, and Robert Morley sing “Can You Hear Us, Alice?” The song is a play on the appealing main theme of the film, and she sheds a happy tear as she waves goodbye to them, essentially promising that she won’t forget them or the lessons she’s learned.
Apparently a passion project by Irwin Allen, it was mildly successful in the ratings and at least allowed Allen to somewhat redeem himself after the many setbacks he’d experienced throughout the late 70’s and early 80’s. Thanks to the mega-producer and his ambitious production, he gave us a film that was unforgettable for those who grew up watching it and who now can introduce it to their own children, as I’ve done with my daughter. As a wonderful coincidence, Alice claims she’s seven and-a-half. How old was my daughter when she saw Alice in Wonderland? Seven and-a-half.