The Disney-fication of classic stories works against, rather than for, appreciation of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s story; Tim Burton’s film artfully creates backstory, but also forces a rigid adventure structure onto Alice’s various foray’s; part of the charm of the written-word versions is that Alice’s adventures don’t make a great deal of sense. Writer/director William Sterling’s adaptation is reasonably faithful to the book, and while the result doesn’t exactly flow, it has a few magical moments that make it worth a look.
Before her Bond fame, Fiona Fullerton makes a wide-eyed and wholesome Alice, introduced as she lapses into the slumber that generates her dreams. Cinematographer Geoffrey Unsworth won a BAFTA for his work here, and although the prints are never great for this film, some of the effects are striking, notably the way Alice seems to increase and decrease in size without use of green (or blue circa 1972) screen. Some of the other trick-work is awful, and the songs don’t quite capture the melodies of John Barry’s score. But cameos abound, as the episodic nature of the adventures allow; Peter Sellers and Dudley Moore squabble as the March Hare and the Dormouse, while Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’s Child Catcher Robert Helpmann is the Mad Hatter. Roy Kinnear is the Cheshire cat, Spike Milligan it the Gryphon, Michael Horden, Ralph Richardson, Dennis Price, Flora Robson all contribute; it’s not always easy to see who is who under the make-up, which has similarities to the 2019 Cats movie, but the costumes are striking.
Carroll’s story has always been to pin down; there are specific meanings to be parsed from the elliptical characters, but the meanings are hardly relevant. Alice’s adventures defy logic, like a David Lynch film, and perhaps that’s why we still enjoy them. This 1972 British version has all but vanished, and yet it must have been a prestige production of its day. Perhaps the mustiness of the enterprise is not for kids, but for nostalgic adults, it’s got an off-kilter energy that feels true to Carroll’s whimsical attitudes.