Each month, Raz Greenberg reviews an overlooked piece of science fiction, fantasy or horror – be it a film, a television episode, a comic or a game – one that should have gotten more attention when it first came out and should still be remembered, in his opinion. This month, he takes a trip to Lewis Carroll’s wonderland, courtesy of two of the greatest creators in the history of media.
Some people will undoubtedly claim that Dreamchild has no place being covered in this column, let alone in this website, challenging the fact that is a work of fantasy. In a sense, they’ll be right: essentially, Gavin Millar’s film tells the true story of Alice Liddell (played by Coral Browne) – who, as a child, gave author Lewis Carroll (played by Ian Holm) the inspiration for the protagonist of his famous book Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – and her journey, at the age of 80, to the United States to participate in the celebrations of Carroll’s centenary. But the film has its share of fantasy as well: it portrays the aging Liddell’s memories of Carroll as they constantly mix with scenes from his famous book, often to a nightmarish effect. This great achievement of telling a tragic true story alongside a great fantasy can be credited to two of greatest creators in the history of media: British writer Dennis Potter and American puppeteer Jim Henson.
This may sound like an odd combination, given that Potter is famous for somber masterpieces as The Singing Detective (1986) while Henson is best known for his cheerful work on The Muppet Show. But Henson’s work had a dark side to it as well. The fear of death was a constant theme in his work, both in experimental productions as Time Piece (1965) and in more family-friendly affairs as the 1987 TV show The Storyteller (in which Henson employed Jon Amiel – who directed The Singing Detective, obviously impressed with the interpretation the latter gave to Potter’s script). This fear is also at the heart of Dreamchild, originally a television play written by Potter in the 1960s, which owes a lot of its success on the big screen to the magic worked by Jim Henson’s workshop.
Drawing inspiration from John Tenniel’s original illustrations of Carroll’s book, Henson’s company has made characters as the March Hare, the Mad Hatter and the Mock Turtle extremely lifelike – far more convincing than the in the recent CGI attempts at portraying the same characters in Tim Burton’s productions – but remaining true to Tenniel’s vision, there is also something dirty and crumpled about these characters, giving their scenes a sinister atmosphere. As these scenes are a part of Liddell’s flashbacks to her childhood and signs of her ever-deteriorating mental condition, the audience learns of the unhappy “Wonderland” in which Liddell grew up. It is contrasted with the reality of her visit to New York of the 1930s – the Jazz and showbiz era, a corrupt and decadent society, another “Wonderland” that the now-old woman who grew up in the Victorian era cannot possibly understand and gets hopelessly lost in. More than a story about Liddell’s relationship with her famous literary alter-ego, it is a sad tale of a woman whose time has passed – and who was never a woman of her own time to begin with.
Potter and Henson’s visions are masterfully brought together in Dreamchild in the confident hands of director Gavin Millar, who also helmed another Potter adaptation, Cream in My Coffee (another tale of elderly people and the secrets their past is holding) five years before he was recruited to direct the film. Millar was brought to direct the film by producer Rick McCallum, who has produced the major Dennis Potter adaptations during the 1980s; in the 1990s he joined George Lucas in the production of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles (1993), where he brought Millar to direct an episode. He kept collaborating with Lucas, producing the special editions and later the prequels of The Star Wars films. Dreamchild remains one of the strongest works involving Potter, Henson, Millar and McCallum, and it never got the wide audience it deserves among both fans of Henson or Potter.
Where to get it: a bare-bones DVD release of Dreamchild, with no special features or extras, is available.