A rough estimate puts the number of Alice In Wonderland adaptations—movies, TV shows, cartoons, video games, and, broadening the concept of “adaptation,” T-shirts, dorm room posters, iPhone cases, and so on—at somewhere in the range of eleventy dozen billion. Or, in layman’s terms, a lot. At this point, even trying to figure out how Lewis Carroll’s comical, lightly menacing fable has captured so many hearts and minds is impossible, because the source material has achieved such an iconic status that the concepts are more resonant than their original intent. The context hasn’t shifted so drastically as to be unrecognizable: Alice is still basically Alice, a strong-willed girl who faces fantastical problems with admirable common sense; the White Rabbit is generally neurotic and always late for something; the Mad Hatter is mad; the Cheshire Cat grins; and so on. But while pieces of the original narrative remain, their component parts have been transmuted from individuals into archetypes, stock concepts that can be plugged into Batman comic books and Hot Topic t-shirts in ways the original author might never have imagined.
It wears thin after a while, which is too bad. Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass remain excellent works of literature in their own right, the perfect mix of the clever, the whimsical, and the surprisingly melancholy. Carroll’s books perfectly capture the fundamental rush and flow of dreamlife, the logic that remains both childlike and inescapable, and the intimation of doom lying around every corner—nothing specific, exactly, but lurking behind the scenery, biding its time. These aren’t scary stories by any means. There are pockets of suspense, and occasional threats of beheading, but at their heart, both books are gentle, unflinching examinations of anxiety: the fear of never getting anything quite right; of strangers making demands that are either difficult or flat out impossible; of mixed messages and condescension; of always being too big or too small. What these books aren’t is a strong fantasy narrative, which makes them difficult to effectively adapt. There’s incident, but little plot, which is likely why the characters are so often removed from their stories. It’s a shame, though. Grafting a kind of chosen one hero’s journey onto a lark tends to generate something leaden, familiar, and forgettable.
Where does Once Upon A Time In Wonderland fit in with this? (He said, finally getting to the subject at hand.) A mish-mash of concepts from previous adaptations, plus a dollop of influence from the series’s progenitor, the public-domain clearing house that is Once Upon A Time, Wonderland should, by rights, be practically unwatchable. Tim Burton’s film (which this borrows heavily from in tone, if not in specifics) was bad enough; imagine suffering through a similar story without even the potential of occasionally beautiful special effects. The look of Wonderland vacillates between Disneyland-esque tableaus and green-screened backgrounds that seem to have been lifted from a late ‘90s FMV game. The mythology (which also takes a few swipes from American McGee’s Alice video game, opening with Alice in a mental institution on the verge of a lobotomy) already threatens to get out of hand. The Red Queen wants Alice! But she wants her because Jafar wants her, and Jafar is scary, and there are wishes and genies and a Boiling Sea.
A lot happens in “Down The Rabbit Hole”—too much, really, although that’s a line that’s getting harder and harder to parse these days. (It’s not like Sleepy Hollow has suffered much from over-stuffing.) Wonderland is a limited run series, which means, at least in theory, it has one story to tell, and it’s going to finish telling that story in a single season. So there’s a lot to get done, especially in a first episode that sets the stage for everything else. But so much rushes by that a lot of it plays like sketches rather than actual filled in scenes. Alice’s plight, from childhood to adulthood, relies on stock images—a frightening asylum, brief flashbacks, cursory monologues. Various other characters coalesce around her and urge her forward. The throughline holding the episode—and, presumably, serving to motivate Alice for the entire season—is the missing genie Cyrus. Presumed dead, the Knave of Hearts brings news that he’s still alive, and in Wonderland, which prompts Alice to finally get out of her depressive funk and chase after her lost love.
Supporting-cast wise, this is a mixed bag. Michael Socha’s Knave has promise, fitting into the Han Solo role quite nicely; while the character has appeared before in Once Upon A Time, this is Socha’s first time in the role, and there’s enough suggestion of depth, both in his dealings with Alice and his references to his past, that he’s fun to watch. Keith David’s psychotic Cheshire Cat is a suitably threatening, which is perfectly acceptable approach to take. (The original version’s smarmy, unhelpful advice isn’t the easiest balance to pull off.) John Lithgow’s CGI White Rabbit is more iffy, although the reveal that he’s working with the Red Queen helps give him a necessary edge to combat the John Lennon spectacles and tailored suit. (Which isn’t to say he’s a bad-ass or anything; it’s obvious that he’s helping the Queen because he’s afraid for his life. But giving him complex motivations makes him more than just a special effect—he’s someone with a perspective, and motivation, and that motivation isn’t always going to line up with the heroine’s.) Less impressive still is Cyrus (Peter Gadiot), the object of Alice’s affections. He’s filled in almost entirely through flashback, and what we see is pretty much rote romantic cliche—a character whose apparent sole purpose is to make Alice feel really good about herself before he “dies.” Which makes basic sense, given that the whole show revolves around Alice desperate wanting him back, but it doesn’t generate someone who’s that compelling to watch.
The worst, at least for now, are the two main villains, the Red Queen (Emma Rigby) and Jafar (Naveen Andrews). The Queen—whom I initially mistook to be the Queen Of Hearts, and had this whole rant prepared, but never mind—is supposed to be icy and terrifying, and instead comes across as pouty and disinterested, a generic actor stuck in a generic role. Jafar even less defined, as Andrews’ soft-voiced intensity doesn’t really register as well as it did on Lost; he just seems like a forgettable man in a silly outfit. Oh, and he’s got a staff with a serpent’s head that I swear must’ve been bought at a Spencer’s Gifts 20 minutes before shooting. Between the baddies, I have the most hope for Jafar, because I like Andrews. But it’s disappointing that threat-wise, neither of them come across as particularly dangerous. This kind of plot needs a great hero and a convincing bad guy/girl to work, and so far, the latter is just not cutting it.
Thankfully, Sophie Lowe as Alice is pretty much perfect. This is a show full of tremendous foolishness, from the dodgy special effects to the nonsense names (the Mallow Marsh? Please), and if it’s going to succeed at all, it needs some grounding; someone involved needs to take things seriously. Lowe manages this quite nicely. Her depression and loneliness at the start of the hour are convincing in their smallness, and her sudden switch from the lobotomy-willing to ass-kicking avenger is a treat to watch. Her performance isn’t arch or camp, nor is it leaden and indulgent. It’s gratifyingly real, and the intensity with which she sets about rescuing her lover (and fiancee) is enough to make the relationship believable regardless of Cyrus’ shortcomings. There’s a set look to her face from about the midpoint on that’s marvelous, the expression of someone who knows there’s a happy ending out there wait for her, and goddammit, she is going to make sure she gets it, no matter what it takes. This is not a premise meant for complex emotional shadings, but Lowe manages to suggest a few anyway, and it’s enough to make all the absurdity ring just a little more true.
Still, this is dodgy stuff, and it requires a good deal of commitment on the viewer’s part to fill in the rougher places. You have to want to believe, really. The closed off nature of the storyline is a help, as it promises a sense of momentum and closure that most fantasy shows can’t, and Lowe is terrific. If you squint, you can almost imagine something else behind everything—a story about scared little girl who grew up and decided that she was going to fix everything. That’s not quite what this is about, but it’s close. Lowe captures the anxious determination of the original tale in the set of her jaw, and the way she smiles.
- Bland as Cyrus is, it’s quite nice to see a heroine getting to rescue her male counterpart for a change. And he is a very handsome man, if you like that sort of thing.
- Confession: I have not seen much of Once Upon A Time. Feel free to yell at me in the comments if that’s your thing.
- So Alice freed the genie, but she has three wishes? Wouldn’t it cost at least one wish to do the freeing? Or am I overthinking this. Anyway, the wishes are important: Alice offers them as payment to the Knave, and when he tries to steal them, she informs him that wishes have to be granted in order to work.
- “So you came all the way here on the word of a narcoleptic rodent.”