All other terrible adaptations of "Alice in Wonderland" look pretty good compared with the two-part, four-hour musical version that CBS introduces into the ozone layer tonight and tomorrow night at 8 on Channel 9.
Paramount had a bad experience with the elusive Alice in 1933; its all-star production proved flavorless and static. The Walt Disney animated version had some nice songs but is considered one of the studio's least notable feature-length cartoons. Other filmmakers have faced Lewis Carroll's flinty heroine and been flattened, but tonight producer Irwin Allen leads his umpty-ump stars in suffocating costumes right down the rabbit hole to a new and definitive low-water mark.
It's a witless waltz in a very old mad hat, the kind of precious-specious kiddie bait that drives children prematurely into the eager arms of MTV. Whatever political and social satire Carroll put into his books "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass," as well as any trace of lingering ingenuous charm, has been scrupulously avoided by Allen, whom press releases quote as believing the tales of Alice to be similar in nature to his famous disaster movies "The Towering Inferno" and "The Poseidon Adventure."
In this version, Alice is played not as spunkily resourceful but as a cloying whiner by 9-year-old Natalie Gregory, another of those tot discoveries who might better have gone undiscovered (CBS says 400 children competed for the role; how'd you like to have sat through those auditions?). Once the wretched tyke falls down the rabbit hole, screaming piercingly all the way, she finds herself, and we find ourselves, trapped in a tackily decorated Wonderland that is poorly shot in the overlit way of a filmed sitcom. She proceeds to happen upon various stars, semimajor and ultraminor, trussed up in not-very-amusing costumes and eager to display the fact that they have nothing whatever to say.
That may look like columnist Robert Novak playing the Mouse, by the way, but it is actually Sherman Hemsley. Director Harry Harris is so sheepish about the whole thing he sometimes neglects to give his actors identifying closeups.
Odd as it may seem, and odd as it is, the hapless screenplay was written by Paul Zindel, a playwright who long ago showed promise with his offbeat item "The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds." He tries to turn "Alice" into a "Wizard of Oz" clone, and has the bad taste to make the Jabberwocky a fearsome flying demon meant to symbolize childhood bogyman fears. "As long as you have those fears inside you, the Jabberwocky may come at any time," explains Jack Warden as the moral-toting Owl. "Any time" means just prior to a commercial, so the sequence can end with gratuitous cliffhanging.
Among those who do their best to survive the ordeal are Harvey Korman as the White King, Ann Jillian as the Red Queen, and George Gobel, looking a bit like Jane Darwell, as the Gnat. Lloyd Bridges cuts a fine figure as the White Knight. But eventually you end up feeling sorry for all of them. What is supposedly cute in their kookiness and zest for the non sequitur really makes them come across like obnoxious drunks at a failed cocktail party.
Steve Allen wrote some pleasant-to-insipid songs for the film that contribute to the dated feel of the production. Nothing is done with TV technology or special effects that couldn't have been done 30 years ago, but 30 years ago someone probably would have gone to the trouble of writing a script with an edge or an angle to it. And there would have been enough old character actors and vaudevillians still around to put some of the weaker stuff over.
"Really, you are very dull," the Mock Turtle tells Alice, which is the most astute piece of dialogue to be heard -- except maybe when Carol Channing as the White Queen informs Alice she is 101 years old and Alice says, "I can believe that." The CBS executives who signed off on this leaden debacle must be crossing their fingers and hoping nobody will notice. If I were them, I'd phone in sick today.