Jim Henson’s Creature Shop Awakens Uneasy “Alice in Wonderland” Revisionist Tale



What’s this?  A film based upon the real-life inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865), as a proper and persnickety old woman, made to look back on her claim to fame?  With eerily detailed Wonderland characters courtesy of Jim Henson’s Creature Shop?  How is it that I was completely unfamiliar with this one…?

Previously only available on disc as one of those burn-on-demand play-only mail-order releases, Dreamchild, 1985’s colorful conundrum of a film has finally arrived for the masses- and on Blu-ray, to boot.  It’s as though Kino Lorber went about sticking its figurative hand down a rabbit hole, only to finally pull out this now-rather-obscure movie.  And why might Dreamchild be rather obscure?  I can think of a few reasons, not the least of which being that it harkens more readily to Nabokov’s Lolita than to the classic fairy tale that its protagonist, eighty-year-old British widow Mrs. Alice Hargreaves, is so closely associated.

We meet the aged Alice (Coral Browne, owning the film and then some) on the ship to New York City to pay tribute to her close childhood acquaintance, Reverend Charles L. Dodgson, a.k.a. author Lewis Carroll (Ian Holm, playing it ever skittish and edgy).  We also meet her caretaker, a young British girl named Lucy (Nicola Cowper) who readily runs point for her stuck-in-her-ways charge, advising the flurry of fast-talking fedoraed reporters awaiting Alice’s arrival that Mrs. Hargreaves wouldn’t abide being addressed as anything but her proper name, and certainly not the informal “Alice”.  One shoots back, “‘Mrs. Hargreaves in Wonderland’… Doesn’t have the same ring to it, kid!”.  What follows is a quite unconventional tale of an old woman coming to terms with this particular aspect of her youth.  Off to the side, Lucy and a particularly desperate fedoraed reporter (Peter Gallagher) fall in love.

Written by the celebrated Dennis Potter (who scribed the devastating musical Pennies from Heaven), co-produced by future Star Wars prequel producer Rick McCallum, and directed by the recently departed Gavin Millar (making his feature film debut), Dreamchild fumbles some basics (Must the film fixate for several minutes on the behind-the-scenes bygone art of radio drama sound effects? Annie did this much better.) of but also strikes some real chords.  Regrettably, most of those chords are subtly atonal, in that the film’s subject matter is, depending on the severity of one’s read, at the very least unpalatable.  At worst, it’s unconscionable.  

It’s now widely accepted that Dodgson harbored inappropriate feelings for the young girls in his immediate sphere, particularly Alice.  To what degree he might’ve acted upon such feelings can only be the stuff of speculation. Dreamchild goes so far as to depict elder Alice as having difficult suppressed memories triggered during her New York trip but stops short in detailing beyond her flashbacks of innocent kisses on the cheek to Dodgson.  Potter’s noncommittal approach is probably the proper path to take this story, though it also operates fully as a gestalt- each viewer will see what they see.  Which absolutely flags Dreamchild as something perhaps best avoided for anyone with such sensitivities regarding the matter.

It’s in these reconciliatory mental moments that the Henson creatures appear to Alice.  A far cry from the huggable felt fuzziness of the Muppets, these macabre renderings of the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Mock Turtle, and the Dormouse, the Caterpillar, and the Gryphon are far more evocative of the Creature Shop’s work on Labyrinth(1986) or particularly The Dark Crystal (1982).  These are large-scale, beautifully frightening puppets, truly detailed to the hilt.  It’s unfortunate that their screen time is so terribly limited.  Most of these characters only turn up for one extended scene; the others bookend the film.  Their parts, however, are essential to the overall of the story, particularly their decrepit, nightmare-fuel nature.  Some may find the presence of “muppets” (though technically these aren’t Muppets) intrusive in a fragile and uneasy exploration such as this, but their raw tactility is appreciated in today’s digital age.  That Henson would so fully commit to participating in a project such as this (though work for hire it was, and he does not personally operate any of the characters) at the height of his Muppets-powered notoriety proclaims just how committed he was towards furthering the popular perceptions and possibilities of puppetry.

This KL Studio Classics Blu-ray presentation offers a couple special features in addition to the feature presentation.  The main one is the new audio commentary by author/film historian Lee Gambin.  Gambin’s track is a dense delivery of thoroughly researched and very well-placed facts, anecdotes, thoughts, and opinions on Dreamchild, and its key aspects.  While he is absolutely sensitive to the discomfort that the movie may bring about for many, he nonetheless plows on with a quite positive take.  Gambin also contributes an audio conversion that he conducted with director Peter Medak, discussing Coral Browne.  Medak, now quite old, directed Browne in his 1972 film, The Ruling Class, and clearly still carries quite the torch for the late actress.  That’s slightly awkward, in that in 1974 she wed Vincent Price.  But it is a great to hear him recollect her raucous personality- something we only see glints of in Dreamchild.  As for Dreamchild, Medak barely recalls seeing it.  Also on the disc, there is the film’s theatrical trailer and optional English subtitles.  Of the Blu-ray, the presentation must be better than the film has ever been since its theatrical run.

Despite the vital thematic ties to Carroll’s Wonderland and the Henson creations in the certain key scenes,Dreamchild is not at all a movie for children.  Between it being an “Alice in Wonderland”-themed movie not for kids, and it not being altogether soundly made in the first place, it’s no wonder that Dreamchild shrunk away.  All of that considered, Dreamchild is a trip worth taking if you’re at all game.