'Alice in Wonderland': a dreamy cast and fabulous effects

We all grew up with "Alice in Wonderland" - in one form or another. Alice's pluck was an inspiration in childhood as she defied the Queen of Hearts and other erratic rascals in her weird dream.

But screen versions of Lewis Carroll's classic tale have been inadequate in capturing the spirit of the original. There's a reason: Dreams are never easy to re-create. They are often boring in the retelling.

A delightful new made-for-TV movie, (Sunday, Feb. 28, 8-11 p.m., NBC), however, reinterprets "Alice" and thus captures something of its essence.

This clever adaptation by Peter Barnes - set off by 875 fabulous special effects - alters the moral slightly, adding a twist that makes more sense on the screen.

"I love the book," explains director Nick Willing. "I approached it reverently.

"The main thing I insisted on is that Alice is asked to sing a song and is scared. The reason I did that is I felt the book is a collection of anecdotes, sketches written at different times and then cobbled together in a book. It is not written as a story with a beginning, middle, and end. And our modern movie sensibility has to have an emotional pull for us to stay with a character."

Throughout the book Carroll has Alice asked to sing songs and to join in other people's performances. So Mr. Willing felt that giving her the task of singing in public echoed Carroll's own intentions. "Singing the song becomes a metaphor for growing up," he says.

It was important to the director to cast a child as Alice, and Tina Majorino is perfect in the role. Her sincerity, courage, and innocence shine through the whole movie.

Of course Alice does have help finding her way through Wonderland. The Cheshire Cat (Whoopi Goldberg) is a benign guide. The White Knight (played with gentle dignity by Christopher Lloyd) reminds her to "get back on the horse." (He repeatedly falls off his own horse only to get right back on.)

And the Mock Turtle (Gene Wilder) helps her come out of her shell. Says Willing: "He's the one I picked to draw her out. He gets her to sing - coaxing her out of her shyness like a good friend. It is an enormous moment of healing."

And who better to draw a little girl out of her shyness than an actor of Wilder's sensitivity? His Mock Turtle speaks tenderly to Alice, combining pathos with vaudevillian zest. "At this point in my life, and I hope for the rest of my life, the only reason I do something is because a little bell goes off when I read it and says it is for me," says Wilder in an interview.

"I only want to do things that are somewhere inside of me, and I can create something beautiful by taking the role.

"When I read the script, I loved it. The combination of the sadness and the humor got me. Then when I heard Ben Kingsley, Whoopi, Marty Short, and Miranda Richardson were in it, I said, 'These are all wonderful parts.' "

He was especially taken with the screenplay, he says, because "while the book is beautiful, it doesn't necessarily lend itself to actors. [Screenwriter Barnes's] great accomplishment was to serve both Lewis Carroll and the actors. It is really the story of a child who is fearful of becoming a young woman and the journey she takes to enter young womanhood. And all these ordeals are part of the path to adulthood. The Mock Turtle is the one who sends her out with confidence."

Adds director Willing, "Her dream has given [Alice] the answer. She has done it herself."

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