I’m not sure which is creepier in 1985’s Dreamchild: Jim Henson’s puppet creatures or Ian Holm’s twitchy portrayal of Lewis Carroll.
Carroll, whose real name was Charles Dodgson, was discovered to have possessed nude photos he had taken of young girls. It was difficult to put that out of my mind while watching a man who is clearly infatuated with young Alice Liddell, the inspiration for the Alice of his stories.
We will see her as a young girl and as an octogenarian. In what we will call the present, it is the great depression and she is an old woman on an ocean crossing to New York City for an invitation to speak at Columbia University on the occasion of the centenary of Lewis’s birth.
Young Alice is played by Amelia Shankley in a surprisingly mature performance. Carol Browne plays the mature version. Not only does the movie jump back and forth in time, but one actress may suddenly be swapped out for the other unexpectedly.
This mostly happens in the scenes where she is inside Carroll’s stories. Sometimes, it is when she is a girl and he is telling them to her. Other times, it is where she is older and occasionally retreats into the world of the stories when the outside world is too confusing. I can’t imagine being so overwhelmed by phone solicitations that I would find solace in the insanity of the Mad Hatter’s tea party, but I guess you gotta go with what you know.
Jim Henson provided the creatures for those scenes and…um. Everybody is familiar with Henson’s turn to darker works in the 1980’s with such features as Labyrinth and The Dark Crystal, but these are something else. The March Hare and Mad Hatter are nuclear-grade nightmare fuel. The Caterpillar is the grossest version I have seen yet, with large, orange pustules on its neck.
I can’t deny the works of Lewis are tightly ingrained in popular culture. At the same time, I have never had a strong interest in them, and that’s even without the (supposedly) repressed (alleged) pedophilia of the author. Basically, I just don’t find them interesting. At best, I find them a tad disturbing.
Given my point of view, it seems these creepy-ass puppets would be the ideal realization of Lewis’s characters. And yet I still couldn’t appreciate them even on those terms. While I would prefer these versions to any of the many Disney-fied iterations we have seen, I still didn’t want to spend any more time with them.
On the plus side, we don’t really spend much screen time with them. Alas, that means we spend most of the time in the real world, where dual uninteresting dramas are unfolding nearly a century apart. In the present, Browne and her paid companion (Nicola Cowper) try to evade the press and other parties while staying in a very artificial looking New York City.
Fortunately, the scenes in the past take place in a gorgeously-photographed estate in rural England. Given the choice, I’m glad they went with location footage of the English countryside and an artificial NYC, instead of the other way around.
Peter Gallagher plays a former newspaper reporter trying to make some money by getting a cut of sponsorships he encourages Browne to take. He looks so young here that he could have been cast in Bugsy Malone. But then, his depression-era reporter getup probably gave me that idea. As far as his performance goes, it is just OK, but not as good as the leads.
What most confounded me are the scenes between Shankley and Holm. In a couple of scenes, he’s looking at this girl in a way not unlike how we did when longing for the ring in Lord of the Rings, yet the soundtrack is swelling up with swooning strings. With these mixed signals, what is the audience supposed to be thinking and feeling?
I found it telling there is a brief moment later where we see Jane Asher, as her mother, burning letters from Carroll to her daughter. And, yet, the last scene in the past shows Holm and the entirety of Shankley’s family relaxing on a river bank, with the girl next to a potential suitor whose last name she will bear in the present-day scenes. Does the movie showing us a young girl with a prospective future suitor imply a tacit approval of Carroll’s behavior?
In the end, the failure of Dreamchild for me is I can’t figure out who it is for. With its horrific puppets, parts of it are creepier than most horror movies I have seen. Then there’s the drama, where I wasn’t interested in the present storyline, while the one in the past, with its overtones of inappropriate thoughts, made my skin crawl.
Dir: Gavin Millar
Starring Coral Browne, Ian Holm, Amelia Shankley, Nicola Cowper
Watched on Kino Lorber blu-ray