MALICE IN WONDERLAND ain’t your mama’s (or Lewis Carroll’s) version of the tale. No, this one, which has recently been released on DVD here in the States, has a decidedly mod sensibility to it, complete with plenty of words of the ‘F’ persuasion, city-boy attitude, near music video mentality, and a trip down the rabbit hole that’s drug-induced (but how much is left to the viewer). It all boils down to an idea without the maturation needed to tie it up in a neat, appealing package.
A modern-day black London cab driver named Whitey (Danny Dyer) accidentally smacks into our heroine (Alice, played by Maggie Grace) and gives her a strong something to help with the bump on her head and the amnesia from which she’s suffering. Well, as you can guess, this starts the journey for the fair-haired lass. Of course, said journey is a semi-weird one, scattered with semi-weird souls, and Alice has to figure out how to extricate herself from this screwy world.
Apparently, it’s a world in which everyone seems to want to get in on a big bank score, so they’re all trying to get a bloke named Harry Hunt (Nathaniel Parker) a special birthday gift, so he’ll feel inclined to include them in a majorly massive bank heist that will make any involved instant millionaires. Everyone appears to talk about it freely and openly too, so it seems only logical that the authorities would get wind of things and prepare for it. There is no hint of this, however. But I suppose that isn’t too important for our story teller’s purposes, so let’s move on.
MALICE IN WONDERLAND is actually a British fantasy, with Alice being the sole person of non-British persuasion in it. She’s an American – who probably shouldn’t want to go back to Britain any time soon after this strange, awkward, and uneasy trip across the pond. The point is that there simply doesn’t seem to be much of true interest in this version of WONDERLAND. And poor Maggie Grace utters lines like “So, who is this stupid Harry, anyway?” as if she were a none-too-mature teen. She makes many of her deliveries with about as much confidence as a child. She’s not an unattractive young lady, but – and I’m sorry, Maggie – her performance looks almost like something out of a high school play (her Young Artist’s Award for MURDER IN GREENWICH and ensemble cast Screen Actor’s Guild Award for LOST notwithstanding).
At times, MALICE IN WONDERLAND feels akin to a student film production, one with a budget and maybe a little more time. Sample the editing: it’s not as snappy as it should be. If you’re going to create a tripped out fantasy, you might as well go all the way in manipulating the viewer’s senses. The efforts here really don’t seem too courageous in that regard, and many things move at a lesser clip than feels right. A little bit of the George Lucas “Faster and More Intense” style of direction and cutting (at least from his earlier days) could’ve helped a might. Inappropriate pacing hurts some performances in a piece of this nature more than in some other genres.
Aside from Maggie Grace, the performers aren’t too bad (in fact, some, such as Danny Dyer, are known and liked in certain circles), but their performances still feel a smidge stilted, because no one seems to have a solid handle on the flow this type of film requires. This off-kilter pace – involving direction, acting and editing – leads to a slightly awkward feel throughout, which means most of the intended fun just isn’t there.
In addition, no one is really intriguing enough to spend eighty-seven minutes with. MALICE IN WONDERLAND is rather like watching strangers go through an odd experience without ever being seriously engaged in who they are or what they’re doing. And the trippiness lacks that intended bit of glee one expects from a travel into Wonderland.
Then there is the aspect of Alice falling in love with Whitey. It’s wholly unbelievable and completely artificial. At the outset, Alice is running away because her mom and dad (well, step mom & dad, as it turns out) want her to marry a well-placed German gent. But during her trip she falls for a scruffy looking cabbie who’s trying to get in good with that bank robber so he can get accepted into the thief’s next gig. Now he sounds like a catch. But that’s the more minor issue. The biggest problem is that feeling of falsity, which is always a very bad sign.
If you cannot create a compelling world for your plot, with equally compelling characters who need to wander through said world, then you’ve got yourself a big problem. This low-budget variation on the Alice story is not filled with any of the wonder of Lewis Carroll’s envisioning, but then neither is the big-budgeted, big studio version directed by Tim Burton filled with much of it, so I suppose MALICE IN WONDERLAND is in strong company in its failure to take the high road.
The features on the DVD include a standard making-of doc, which also fails to engage or offer reason for its existence; some behind the scenes photos; and previews of other Magnolia home entertainment properties. So if the film leaves you thinking “So what?”, then the special features will probably have you asking “What for?” You probably have more important things on which to spend your time.
MALICE IN WONDERLAND (Mark Williams Films; 2009; 87 min.) Directed by Simon Fellows. Screenplay by Jayson Rothwell. Produced by Albert Martinez Martin and Mark Williams. Co-produced by Larry Collins and Charles Salmon. Production Design by Lisa Hall. Art Direction by Luke Stevens. Special Effects supervised by Jason Troughton. Visual Effects supervised by Paddy Eason and David Wahlberg. Music Composed by Christian Henson and Joe Henson. Edited By Roy M. Brewer Jr. and James Melton. Cast: Maggie Grace, Danny Dyer, Matt King, Nathaniel Parker, Christopher Patterson, Bronagh Gallagher, Anthony Higgins, Steve Haze, Dave Lynn, Gary Beadle, Amanda Boxer, Garrick Hagon, Paul Kaye, Matthew Stirling, Alan Mckenna, Fiona O’Shaughnessy, Steve Furst, Pam Ferris, Charlotte Mae McGuinness, Candace Macon, Lin Blakely, Sandra Dickinson, William Tapley, David Blakeley, Alice Blake Lee, Bo Bonsu, Tony Cook, and Davis Frost. MPAA Rating: R for language, some sexual content, drug use and brief violence.