'Alice in Wonderland,' again and again on DVD

By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 2, 2010; 12:00 AM

If images of mad hatters and white rabbits seem to be appearing at the turn of every corner, don't worry. Odds are you're not hallucinating.

With "Alice in Wonderland," Tim Burton's 3D adaptation of Lewis Carroll's bizarre and beloved children's tales coming to theaters on Friday, it seems everyone in the DVD business wants to capitalize on the hype. Today alone, four rabbit-hole-related releases have been issued by four different studios. And that doesn't even account for one that already came out a few weeks ago ("Alice Through the Looking Glass," the 1966 TV musical that aired on NBC) or another that arrives on March 30 (that would be the re-release of the well-known Disney cartoon, in a special two-disc "un-anniversary" edition). Even the most ardent fans of the British girl who plunges into a freakish parallel universe have to admit that that's a lot of looking glasses.

So which ones are most worth passing through? At the top of the list is the BBC's "Alice in Wonderland" ($14.98), the most sophisticated, dreamlike and vaguely disturbing version in this bunch. With its surreal black-and-white imagery, a sitar-driven soundtrack by Ravi Shankar and performances by British stars like Peter Sellers (who plays the King of Hearts) and Peter Cook (the Mad Hatter), this 1966 "Alice" borrows recognizable moments from Carroll's narratives -- the tea party, the Queen of Heart's croquet tournament -- but ambles along in its own, unique, stream-of-consciousness fashion. The whole thing feels, appropriately, like a hazy, occasionally shocking fever dream.

The production, directed by Jonathan Miller, also gives us perhaps the most transfixing Alice ever committed to film. Whereas most screen versions portray the apron-skirted heroine as a plucky, confused and occasionally impudent young girl, Anne-Marie Mallik (sporting a mad, messy mane and noticeable bags under her eyes), plays Alice here as addled, occasionally belligerent and practically incapable of making eye contact, the way one might actually be after going through that whole "Eat Me, Drink Me" routine.

The BBC edition also comes with more extras than any of the other "Wonderland" DVDs, including a featurette on Shankar; a 1965 film about the real Alice Liddell, upon whom Carroll's stories were based; and a commentary from director Jonathan Miller. ("I've never much liked the previous ones," Miller says of other "Alice" adaptations about five minutes into his audio track, "especially the Disney one, which I thought was absurd.")

One assumes Miller probably didn't care much for the 1933 "Alice in Wonderland," also out today on DVD ($12.99), which emphasizes the childlike innocence in Carroll's stories in a way that will feel more familiar (and perhaps comfortable) to most audiences. The most entertaining moments in this more traditional iteration involve our glimpses of then-massive stars in ridiculous, persona-masking costumes, from W.C. Fields in his Humpty-Dumpty outfit to, in what has to be the least suave performance of his career -- Cary Grant in the role of the Mock Turtle. The DVD comes with no extras.

Don't expect any special features on "Alice," either, the miniseries that aired last December on the SyFy Channel and makes its debut today on DVD ($19.98) and Blu-ray ($29.99). An intriguing but often draggy reimagining of Wonderland as a place where the Queen of Hearts (Kathy Bates) controls people's minds so they'll gamble endlessly in her sparklingly mod casino, this one is best digested as the network intended: in small portions over multiple viewings, as opposed to one, three-hour-plus binge.

If none of these DVDs sounds like particularly appropriate fare for children, there is one more option: a re-release of "Abby in Wonderland" ($14.98) that places Sesame Street's sprightly pink fairy, Abby Cadabby, in the role of Alice. It should be noted that this DVD is identical to the version that came out in 2008 (which is still available), proof that even Elmo and his friends are smart enough to take advantage of a cross-promotional opportunity when they see one.

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