The new three-hour adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is graced by two marvelous performances — Miranda Richardson’s hilariously shrieky Queen of Hearts and Martin Short’s ferociously nuts Mad Hatter. Richardson, with painted-on eyebrows that look like two spoons in profile on her high forehead, is all demented imperiousness: She makes the line ”Take off his head outside!” a gut buster. Short has somehow managed to make himself look exactly like the famous John Tenniel drawing of the Hatter, and he has just the right combination of dithering absurdity and cold-blooded logic that makes Carroll’s fairy-tale fiction at once so funny and so profound.
Alice is played with a sweet baffledness by Tina Majorino (Corrina, Corrina), but she is the main victim of screenwriter Peter Barnes’ adaptation. Barnes has added a framing story — Alice is to perform a song for a house party, and most of the actors who will later appear in Wonderland (Richardson, Short, Ben Kingsley as the hookah-puffing Major Caterpillar, Gene Wilder as the Mock Turtle) are shown here first, as Alice’s audience. It’s a device similar to that of the Judy Garland Wizard of Oz movie; once Alice has fallen down the rabbit hole, all of those ”real” people pop up as outlandish characters.
There’s no reason for this narrative device, and it just slows down what proves to be a very poorly paced movie anyway. Individual scenes are marvelous — Barnes sticks to Carroll’s book, and set pieces like the Mad Hatter’s tea party are beautifully reproduced. And the casting is frequently inspired: To what better use could Whoopi Goldberg’s wide smile now be put than in playing the grinning Cheshire Cat? But over the course of three hours, the pace is slow, and, under the direction of Nick Willing, a British TV-commercial director, this Alice seems endless. Its maddening unevenness is summed up by Tweedledee and Tweedledum. The former, played by George Wendt, is awful — hokey and florid. The latter, played by Robbie Coltrane, is terrific — playful and nimble for a tubby character. I hate to be one of those TV critics who says, ”Read the book instead,” but… B-