November 26, 2012

The year is 1932, and an 80-year-old woman named Alice Hargreaves is sailing from England for America. This woman, who appears ordinary, is not so at all; for she is the Alice, the Alice who long ago became the central figure for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

This is how we first meet her in Dreamchild. As she prepares to receive an honor from Columbia University, marking the centenary of Carroll’s birth, she reflects upon a languid summer, decades earlier. As a 10-year-old girl, she was the sounding board for the Rev. Charles Dodgson (Carroll’s real name) and his intricate, playful fantasies.

The film jumps between 1932, that childhood remembrance, and a few scenes from Carroll’s work, which come to life complete with the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Mock Turtle, and Gryphon.

The central idea of Dennis Potter’s script is that Dodgson’s repressed sexual appetite was the springboard for his literary flights of fancy. As the film progresses, Potter and director Gavin Millar suggest that Dodgson, a shy stutterer, had an indecent love for little Alice, and that—being a wholly decent man—he sublimated his passion, which ultimately found its voice in his writing.

This idea is delicately forwarded throughout the film, mostly in looks and glances. We’re never quite sure whether Dodgson is a sicko with a Lolita complex or whether he innocently likes children.

There’s a hint that the elderly Alice is thinking about all this, and perhaps understanding the implications of Dodgson’s attentions, for the first time. Maybe this explains why, when we first see her, she is hard-edged and cranky; like a woman trying to hide a secret from herself.

The appearances by Carroll’s characters—as splendidly created by Jim Henson’s puppet crew after the original John Tenniel drawings—may be considered chorus-like presences, helping this Alice, like the fictional one, on her roundabout way to finding out the truth.

Potter has explored his themes before; the coexistence of reality and artifice in Pennies from Heaven, and sexual repression in Brimstone and Treacle. But he brings things together here in a way that never seems schematic or boring.

And his cause is helped by three wonderful performances: Coral Browne, stiff but perhaps still vulnerable as the older Alice; Ian Holm, as the loving but controlled Dodgson; and Amelia Shankley, a fresh and spontaneous presence in her film debut, as little Alice.

The romantic subplot between Alice’s nurse (Nicola Cowper) and an American newspaperman (Peter Gallagher) may not quite be strong enough to fit into this puzzle; and it would have been terrific to have seen some more of Carroll’s creatures given life. But there is much that is special about Dreamchild, and it makes an intriguing companion piece to Carroll’s enduring work.

First published in the Herald, December 19, 1985

A brilliant idea for a Dennis Potter project, and a film I’d like to see again. I recall that, while Jim Henson’s puppets are always superb, the creatures here are particularly haunting, not just in their design but in their presence, somehow.


January 10, 2012

Labyrinth of hair: David Bowie

Near the beginning of Labyrinth, an adolescent girl given to flights of fancy is stuck baby-sitting her baby brother. As he wails into the night, she tries telling him a fairy story; then gives up and proclaims that she wishes he would be kidnapped by goblins.

Let this be a lesson to you: Don’t make such proclamations casually. The babe is forthwith spirited away by ugly little gnomes, who take the kid to the castle located in Goblin City in the heart of a huge, apparently unsolvable labyrinth.

The rest of the movie is the girl’s quest to retrieve her brother, by passing through a maze of false walls, trap doors, and special effects.

She must also pass by a host of creatures from a menagerie concocted by Jim Henson, the man behind the Muppets, who also directed the film. Henson, that is, not the Muppets.

Although newcomer Jennifer Connelly holds the screen for most of the film, and David Bowie contributes his persuasive presence (and a few songs) as the prince of the warlocks, the creatures are the true stars. Labyrinth, like Henson’s The Dark Crystal, is torn between being a real movie and being a vehicle for bigger, more outlandish Muppets.

It’s fairly successful either way. The beasts include a goblin smitten with Connelly but beholden to Bowie; a lurching behemoth who resembles an orangutan with horns; a perky one-eyed terrier who carries on the chivalric code; various worms, birds, and creatures who play basketball with their own heads; trolls; and a guy with a peacock on his noggin.

They’re fun, although Henson doesn’t appear to be breaking any new ground, in terms of design. In fact, some of the designs and ideas are reminiscent of the work of Maurice Sendak, who is mentioned in a curious personal acknowledgment in the end credits.

Much of the fun comes from the humor with which the creatures are endowed. Henson and screenwriter Terry Jones (a Monty Python writer-performer) put a sardonic spin on much of the material, which is otherwise a familiar adventure tale of imagination, questing, and growing up.

Take the talking rocks, for instance, which warn the heroine to turn back from the castle. They don’t appreciate the derogatory comments from Connelly and her troll guide, and the rocks explain, in the stentorian voices, that they’re just doing their jobs. Can they get on with it? In rolling tones and then a milder voice: “The path you take will lead to certain destruction. Thank you very much.”

The world of the labyrinth is skillfully mounted, by Henson’s troupe and George Lucas’s Industrial Light and Magic, the special effects wizards (Lucas is the film’s executive producer). Their greatest feat: the Bog of Eternal Stench, a flatulent swamp. You can almost smell it, although even George Lucas hasn’t figured out a way to pull off this trick—not that you’d want him to, in this case.

For all the spiffy effects and breakneck pace, Labyrinth doesn’t get deeply or meaningfully into its myth, not even in the way that Lucas’s Star Wars films did. It’s an enjoyable maze to find your way through, but unlike the heroine, you never find anything at this labyrinth’s center.

First published in the Herald, June 28, 1986

Yesterday was David Bowie’s birthday—impeccable timing, right? Only a day late. I have never revisited this movie, which makes me an exception to its many fans. I have no doubt that if Labyrinth is viewed at the age of ten, it makes a lasting Ozian impression, but it never lived like that for me. Yet now I want to see it again. Damn you, Eighties website!