Hoffa’s Retro Cinema Club - "Dreamchild" (1985)

Wonderland was just a memory away… - Dreamchild / 1985 / Color / 90 min. / Hi-Fi Mono / Rated PG

Welcome back to Hoffa’s Retro Cinema Club, right here on your local Patch!!!

Be sure to check out all prior installments, which can be found here:


The year is 1985, and Jim Henson's Creature Shop has been quite busy. Following the box office success of 1984's The Muppet's Take Manhattan, Henson and his Creature Shop had just hit a bump with the critically acclaimed but theatrical dud Sesame Street Presents: Follow That Bird. But this minor set back wasn't enough to deter Henson, who was franticly gearing up the Creature Shop for the upcoming realization of his life's dream and ambition, Labyrinth (1986), which had finally been green-lighted for production after numerous set-backs thanks in part to a little help from his long time friend and creative collaborator, George Lucas.

But before the Creature Shop could turn its focus to Labyrinth, Henson had committed its resources to a small British production helmed by relative newcomer Gavin Millar, who was also working on his life's ambition of bringing of the story of Alice Liddell, the little girl who inspired the Reverend Charles Dodgson's (aka Lewis Carroll) Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865, novel), to the silver screen. Taking the name used by Dodgson in describing the 'Alice' of his timelessly imaginative fable, Millar's realization would become known as Dreamchild (1985), this installment of Hoffa's Retro Cinema Club's feature film pick!

Written by British television screen writing veteran Dennis Potter, Dreamchild stars a crass and refined Coral Brown as the aging Alice Hargreaves, who at 80 years is finally making her first trip to the New World in 1932 to receive an honorary degree from Columbia University as part of a celebration of Dodgson's centenary. Traveling with her young assistant Lucy, played by British soap-opera star Nicola Cowper in an early role, Alice soon finds herself lost in culture shock before she even has a chance to de-board the giant steamer that brought her to America. Enter Jack Dolan, a newly unemployed newspaper reporter played by a young Peter Gallagher, in his second feature film appearance, who sees Alice and her potential marketability as an opportunity to re-ignite his stalled career.

As Jack pushes to reinvigorate the youthful exuberance of the 'Alice' that had captivated generations from within the elderly and infirm woman, Alice finds her mind slowly slipping into the memories of her past. In such memories, Alice embarks on re-living her relationship with Dodgson, in an attempt to finally comprehend and gain understanding of his true feelings and intentions towards her adolescent self. As Alice progressively delves deeper into her memories, she's assisted by the cast of creepy and colorful characters from Dodgson's Wonderland, such as the Mad Hatter, March Hare, Mock Turtle, and others, which are fantastically brought to life by Henson's Creature Shop.

In Alice's flashbacks, we are transported to Victorian-Era England, where we are introduced to young Alice (Liddell), played by newcomer Amelia Shankley, and are able to witness first-hand her budding relationship with Dodgson, played by Shakespearean trained British stage and screen legend Sir Ian Holm. From such vantage, we are able to witness Dodgson's feelings towards the little girl that inspired one of the greatest gifts ever given and shared with the world. But will Alice be successful in navigating these memories to discover the truth of Dodgson's affections before the centenary celebrations at Columbia?

Dreamchild is a sweet and compassionate look inside one of history's most beautiful, mysterious, and controversial relationships and the immortal greatness that resulted from such. Crucial to its success are the performances from the lead cast, and especially those of Holm and Shankley. In undoubtedly one of the best performances of his career, Holm perfectly captures the shy and timid demeanor of Dodgson, while managing to convey a sense of great empathy regarding the feelings he had for the young Alice. The evolving on-screen 'chemistry' between Holm and Shankley drives the emotional impact of Millar's film, and is wonderfully exemplified in the paramount closing minutes of this hauntingly enchanted tale.

Henson's Creature Shop's Wonderland characters are a brilliant addition, incredibly detailed, and in staying true to Dodgson's vision, are dark and surreal, providing Dreamchild with an imagination charged atmosphere. The sub-plots of Gallagher's Jack attempting to profit off Alice's state-side visit and falling in love with Cowper's Lucy don't really add much of substance to the story and are almost more of a distraction. But it's still a shear delight watching Brown's prim and proper Victorian raised Alice snarky exchanges with the deceitfully flattering and profiteering Gallagher, who's natural charm is really put on display here. As the trio navigates Millar's recreation of Depression Era New York City, which is filmed with attention to the smallest of details and is frighteningly accurate, the mood and sentiments of such time are effectively captured and related to the audience, thus adding to the overall unique feel of the picture.

The only real downfall to Dreamchild comes from a budget limitation, as opposed to a production problem, in that the audio is mastered in Hi-Fi Mono instead of the more common for the times Dolby Stereo, thus minimizing the otherwise strong emotive impact of composer Stanley Myers simple and eerily lovely score. Be sure to check out the attached preview scene highlighting a breathtakingly evocative exchange between Holm and Shankley.

In North America, Dreamchild was released on VHS by Cannon Video, re-issued on VHS in 1993 by MGM/UA, on DVD by MGM, and in a double feature DVD with the film A Criminal Affair (1968) by EastWest Entertainment, which is little more than a transfer sourced from a rather poor VHS copy of the film and should be avoided whenever possible due to poor picture and sound quality. Although Dreamchild is not offered through Netflix, it is available to view for free in ten parts via YouTube, or at least it was at the time of this review.

For the true story of the real Alice and the love that Rev. Dodgson had for her, be sure to check out Dreamchild today! Then, come back to Patch and let Hoffa and others know what you think about Millar's modern masterpiece and be sure to tune in for the next installment of Hoffa’s Retro Cinema Club!

Dreamchild / 1985 / Color / 90 min. / Hi-Fi Mono / Rated PG for adult themes.

Film Clip and Production Still courtesy of Universal Pictures. ™ and © 1985 Thorn EMI Screen Entertainment Ltd.

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James R Hoffa February 29, 2012 at 03:55 AM
Thanks Noelle! I really appreciate that :-)
mau February 29, 2012 at 04:24 AM
Wow, I wasn't expecting that. Once I started watching it, it drew me in. I read the biography linked to Alice Liddell, It's speculation whether there was a relationship, but the movie did a good job of instilling that idea. I was so surprised how the actress' who played Alice as a child and as a old woman, resembled the actual Alice. I got the impression when she was reading the poem at the end, that she finally realized how much Dodgson loved her. I need to watch it again as I may have missed some as the movie moved from real life to dream. Great choice for your cinema club. Loved the music.
James R Hoffa February 29, 2012 at 05:10 AM
@mau - I'm so glad you had the chance to watch it! To me, 'Dreamchild' represents Dodgson's unbridled, unadulterated, and unsexual love for the young Alice. It's just raw unequivocal love in its truest and most pure form. Something so beautiful and wonderful - it's rarely seen these days. Because Dodgson was a bachelor, Alice's parents, and especially her mother, were extremely cautious and weary of him, believing him to potentially be a pedophile, which left Alice with a good deal of doubts regarding his feelings for her and how she would choose to interpret them. The fact that he regularly photographed adolescent girls in the nude didn't help matters much either. But as she grew older, she realized that was not the case and that Dodgson's intentions were only ever sincere. The scene where the young Alice hugs Dodgson after he is humiliated for stuttering while trying to sing a song for her and her family and friends never fails to move me on a wholly spiritual level. It makes us wish that more people were capable of loving one another in such a way, doesn't it? It's such a beautiful film and Holm is absolutely wonderful! It's a shame that this little gem isn't more widely known, especially as compared to the emotionally absent more recent screen adaptations of the Alice story. How do you interpret the closing scene with young Alice, the older Dodgson, and the griffins? I'm curious to know how you interpreted it.
James R Hoffa February 29, 2012 at 05:26 AM
BTW - The 'poem' read at the end was actually an excerpt from Dodgson's book. Hearing her sister read it aloud caused her to finally realize why he had written the book for her - because he eternally loved her. Before that, she wasn't consciously aware of what true love really was. Even when she caused Dodgson pain and sorrow, like when she said "it's only a book," "it's only Mr. Dodgson," or when she talked about marrying another, he never reflected those feeling back onto her. There was no guilt ever transposed, no apology ever necessary - it was all only ever about her and her happiness. In that moment, she finally realized what it meant to be fully loved by another - and for that, she loved him back. If only we could all be so lucky!
mau February 29, 2012 at 07:25 PM
I will comment further but I want to watch it again. I did notice how I think she purposely made Dodgson stutter to embarrass him. That smirk on her face said it all. There was also mention that her mother cut up all the letters she received from him. I believe that poem was what he was trying to read to her when he started stuttering. I need to watch it again.


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