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DVD THIS WEEK: Alice's TV wonderland
February 28, 2010  | By Diane Werts

Those wacky DVD distributors, always looking for a bandwagon to jump on. This week, it's the one led by Tim Burton's phantasmagorical movie Alice in Wonderland starring Johnny Depp, which hits theaters Friday.

At least four TV versions of Alice are new on DVD, coming from networks, cable, even Britain. The choices span five decades, two chromatics, high-tech/low-tech, period pieces and contemporary settings, straightforward and reimagined.

Here's a look at the lot.

alice syfy dvd.jpg

Alice (Syfy, 2009 miniseries) -- Another young-and-funky reimagining from the folks who brought you Tin Man. Caterina Scorsone (1-800-Missing) stars as a modern martial arts instructor who follows her kidnaped boyfriend through a magic mirror in a grimy warehouse. She lands in a creepy Big-Brother-ish urban environment (and nearby scenic landscape), created largely by CGI and peopled by commercially/politically motivated oddballs. They're played by Kathy Bates (Queen of Hearts), Matt Frewer (White Knight), Harry Dean Stanton (Caterpillar), Tim Curry (Dodo), and most notably, Andrew Lee Potts of Primeval as a hot young Hatter. While the computer effects work overtime, the overall impact feels less personal than Tin Man.

Alice in Wonderland (NBC, 1999 miniseries) -- When computer graphics were emerging, this Hallmark-filmed musical extravaganza paired them with Henson creatures to faithfully embody Carroll's Alice books. Tina Majorino of Napoleon Dynamite is surrounded by another all-star cast -- Martin Short (Mad Hatter), Ben Kingsley (Caterpillar), Whoopi Goldberg (Cheshire Cat), Gene Wilder (Mock Turtle), Peter Ustinov (Walrus), Miranda Richardson (Queen of Hearts). But it's the vibrant look that won awards -- Emmys for visual effects, costumes and makeup, as well as music score. (The production was directed by Nick Willing, who'd tackle Syfy's Alice re-think 10 years later.)

alice peter sellers dvd bbc.jpg

Alice in Wonderland (BBC, 1966 film) -- This one's almost as trippy as Jefferson Airplane's contemporaneous rock hit White Rabbit. Director Jonathan Miller opts for dreamlike surreality in author Lewis Carroll's original Victorian setting, using stark black-and-white cinematography and Ravi Shankar sitar music to make it even more exotic. The witty cast includes Peter Sellers (King of Hearts), Peter Cook (Mad Hatter), John Gielgud (Mock Turtle), Wilfrid Brambell (White Rabbit), Michael Redgrave (Caterpillar) and Leo McKern (Dutchess), in drag! This release has a bounty of bonus features -- insightful Miller commentary, Dennis Potter's 1965 dramatization of Carroll inspiration Alice Liddell, a 1903 Alice silent short, and more.

Alice Through the Looking Glass (NBC, 1966 studio musical) -- The networks once offered a sort of video theater, using the TV studio to stage original musicals and classic plays (Hallmark Hall of Fame was then done on videotape). This songfest brought together a showbiz assortment that included Jimmy Durante (Humpty Dumpty), Agnes Moorehead (Red Queen), Jack Palance (Jabberwock) and the Smothers Brothers (Tweedledee and Tweedledum), around young adult Alice Judi Rolin, all in Bob Mackie costumes. It all looks stagy now, but it was state-of-the-(mainstream)-art then. DVD extras include reminiscences by producer Bob Wynn.

If the TV Alice you remember had friends like Ringo Starr, Sammy Davis Jr. and Carol Channing, then you're thinking of CBS' 1985 Alice in Wonderland musical, which came out on DVD in 2006. This one was produced by disastermeister Irwin Allen, with songs by Steve Allen, and perhaps the all-starriest cast of all -- Ringo (Mock Turtle), Davis (Caterpillar), Channing (White Queen), Anthony Newley (Mad Hatter), Sid Caesar (Gryphon), Telly Savalas (Cheshire Cat), Red Buttons (White Rabbit), Shelley Winters (Dodo Bird), and another dozen. The DVD also includes the same crew's Through the Looking Glass second half, which adds Jonathan Winters (Humpty Dumpty), Karl Malden (Walrus), Ernest Borgnine (Lion), Merv Griffin (Conductor) and many more.

Finally, here's a video bonus -- Miller's BBC trip is clear in this clip:

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