Alice in Wonderland (dir. Norman Z. McLeod, 1933)

Preceding a plethora of movie versions both good and bland, 1933’s Alice in Wonderland is the best and most charmingly bonkers adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic rabbit-hole tale.  At a modest 76 minutes, the zany confection is a hybrid of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and features wingbat creatures, inventive set-pieces and logic-chopping dialogue that hums along at screwball pace.  Paramount serves up a staggeringly impressive buffet of stars to add charisma and comic whimsy to the iconic characters of Carroll’s books.  W.C. Fields goes egghead to portray a smarmy-tongued Humpty Dumpty, Gary Cooper perfectly captures the philosophical musings of the White Knight and a young Cary Grant gamely suits up to be the weepy Mock Turtle.  Alice is played by the very fine and lesser known Charlotte Henry, who lends Shirley Temple spunk to a deceptively difficult role.  Actresses often become bogged down by the sheer volume of curiosity needed for the part of Alice. Henry adds a fresh jolt of 1930s “OMG” to each of Alice’s encounters, and, in turn, the film consistently provides scenes bursting with unaffected absurdity.  This freshness is what truly great girl-in-wonderland films have in common: a commitment to randomness that shies away from neither the weird nor the mind-bending.  No doubt Lewis Carroll would agree.

Spirited Away (dir. Hayao Miyazaki, 2001)

The girl-in-wonderland subgenre can serve as an intelligent method for exposing the ludicrous and corrupt nature of those in authority.  In Spirited Away, Hayao Miyazaki’s sublime and wondrously haunting anime film about a child’s quest to save her family, an indictment of society’s burgeoning greed emerges.  When young Chihiro and her parents discover an abandoned amusement park, her pushy father and mother seat themselves at a food counter and ravenously demolish the inviting pork legs on display. To Chihiro’s horror, Mom and Dad transform into gigantic swines, bursting out of their human clothes and erupting in piggy grunts.

So begins Chihiro’s journey to correct her parents’ gluttonous mistake. As she travels to an alternate reality peopled by watery apparitions, a blue-haired boy and a witch named Yubaba running a lucrative bathhouse business, Chihiro discovers true strength lies in removal from material desires.  In one of the finest scenes of the film, the pint-sized girl is confronted by a nasty client at the bathhouse, a previously svelte water spirit who has gorged himself on the bathhouse’s luxuries and is now a bulging, man-eating Goliath, determining his next meal based on who foolishly accepts his gold coins. An impeccable two-shot shows us Chihiro looking squarely at the beast, her wide eyes and petite frame a perfect foil to the bloated body of greed opposite her.  She declines the water spirit’s offering of gold with a polite “No thank you,” and unwittingly saves herself.  To Chihiro, a young girl who most treasures the security of her parents’ love, the need for gold coins is as alien as the creature facing her.

Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural (dir. Richard Blackburn, 1973)

A girl’s journey into a mind-boggling, reality-defying realm is often rooted in horror and tinged with the slightest hint of sadism.  This recurring aspect of the girl-in-wonderland film is perhaps most ghoulishly and creatively portrayed in Lemora: A Child’s Tale of the Supernatural, a film with the surface trappings of an exploitation horror flick and the soul of a cinematic poem.  Barely adolescent choir-girl Lila Lee (played by the winningly impassive Cheryl “Rainbeaux” Smith) climbs aboard a freakish midnight bus to travel to the deathbed of her estranged father.  She is driven deep into an uncharted forest, where salivating zombies lumber about and Lemora, a statuesque vampiress with a penchant for “adopting” children, resides.  Lemora as a film basks in lush mood and Southern Gothic delirium, marked by several ineffable montage sequences featuring Dan Neufeld’s striking score.  When a wheezing hag croons a folk hymn to Lila Lee, a spellbinding and deeply uneasy sequence of rotating shots communicates the dizzying plunge the girl has taken into this alternate fright-reality.  While some fantasy films are plagued by an inert odditorium of high-budget creatures, Lemora reminds us that true wonder is found within atmosphere.

Dreamchild (dir. Gavin Millar, 1985)

At its best, Dreamchild is a fascinating sort of cross between Lolita and Labyrinth.  Navigating the queasy relationship between Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell, the young muse for Carroll’s famous duo of novels, the film chooses to remain tame while cultivating a richly disturbing tone.  This tone is partly due to a magnificent performance by Ian Holm as Carroll (known in the film by his non-pen name, Mr. Dodgson), a stuttering, socially awkward mathematician with all the frightful intelligence and tortured wistfulness of a PG-rated Humbert Humbert.  His nymphet muse is Alice (played by an impressive Amelia Shankley), who walks a heartbreaking line between teasing her aging admirer and being halfway in love with him.  Their scenes together flow in and out of the film like quiet nightmares, punctuated by more strictly fantastical sequences in which Alice re-meets her Wonderland friends.  Such memorable characters as the Mad Hatter, the March Hare and the Caterpillar are given brilliantly grotesque make-overs by Jim Henson’s Creature Shop, and leer at Alice with bulging eyes, decrepit skin and jutting yellow teeth.  If Dreamchild is not strictly a girl-in-wonderland film, it’s wondrous sequences suggest that a girl’s fantasy realm can be, among other things, a place for her to retreat when the disturbing realities of the world become too grave to handle.  Of course, terror can permeate daydreams. With the hollow gaze of the Caterpillar’s bloodshot eyes, or the predatory flash of the March Hare’s jagged fangs, we understand that Alice’s wonderland will never be completely safe from the horrors of the real world.

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