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Alice in Wonderland (1983)
A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this filmed Broadway musical production is quite literary in its adaptation, making it simultaneously more faithful to the original Lewis Carroll works, but also considerably more difficult for young children to follow. Because of some of the sophisticated wordplay and the two smoking characters, not to mention the show trial for the Knave of Hearts and the Queen of Hearts' prediliction for sentencing people to death, this particular adaptation is best sutied for older elementary-aged kids and teens who are already familiar with Alice's adventures.
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What's the story?
In an unnecessarily coy framing device, an understudy (Kate Burton) is shown practicing her lines to play Alice in a stage production. As she's furiously puffing away at a cigarette, she stares at a mirror and is transported into Wonderland, where she becomes the 7-and-a-half-year-old Alice, outfitted with the authentic blue pinafore and long blond hair. In the chessboard-themed Wonderland, Alice come across various characters, like the bloodthirsty Queen of Hearts (Eve Arden), the dancing Tweedle twins (hoofers Andre De Shields and Alan Weeks), the Cheshire Cat (Geoffrey Holder), and the White Knight (Richard Burton) on her way to becoming crowned Queen.
Is it any good?
This is a fine introduction to stage musicals, though there's always something missing when a theatrical production is adapted for television. The theater stars in this 1983 PBS Great Performances' production (a recorded-for-TV version of the 1982 Broadway revival) are undeniable masters of their craft -- from Burton Sr. and Maureen Stapleton (the White Queen) to Colleen Dewhurst (Red Queen) and the great Donald O'Connor (Humpty Dumpty) to a much younger Nathan Lane (Mouse) -- and the black-and-white set design is surprisingly faithful to the illustrations in Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. Although the singing and dancing is obviously stellar, the actual musical numbers themselves are kind of underwhelming.
As Alice, Burton (who is Richard's daughter and best known to contemporary audience as Meredith Grey's mother Ellis in Grey's Anatomy), is appropriately awed but unintimidated by everyone she meets (even while the Queen of Hearts is snapping "Off with their heads!"). She's not an actress known for playing wide-eyed ingenues, preferring strong and successful women in her roles, so it was a bit of hard sell at first to see her as Alice. As the musical continues, however, Burton grows on you. She had excellent rapport with all the actors, although understandably the parts with her father as the White Knight are the best.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the enduring popularity of the Alice story. What makes Alice and her adventure so compelling and timeless?
Carroll's first Alice book has a playing-card theme, and the second has a chess theme. Is it confusing to combine the two stories and two motifs? What do you think they mean?
Was it confusing to occasionally see the actress playing Alice in her dressing room? Would it have been better not to have those parts? Why?