BOOTLEG FILES 426: “That Girl in Wonderland” (1973 Rankin/Bass animated film).
LAST SEEN: We cannot determine the last public exhibition of this film.
AMERICAN HOME VIDEO: None.
REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: A missing piece of Marlo Thomas’ career.
CHANCES OF SEEING A COMMERCIAL DVD RELEASE: Not likely at this point.
I once had the pleasure of meeting Marlo Thomas, and I can attest that she is one of the most gorgeous women I’ve ever encountered. I am mentioning this because I don’t take very much pleasure in badmouthing the 1973 animated film “That Girl in Wonderland,” which hijacked Thomas’ beloved sitcom character and placed her into some of the worst animation that the Rankin/Bass operation ever put on screen.
“That Girl” ran on ABC from 1966 to 1971, and it was considered groundbreaking because its central character Ann Marie was a young single woman who was financially supporting herself. Granted, Ann Marie was not your typical working woman – she was an aspiring actress who seemed to possess an endless supply of designer clothing. But the show was well written (its feminist politics never drowned out the sitcom mirth), and Thomas provided an effervescent quality that helped to keep the series at the top of the ratings.
In 1972, Thomas agreed to revive Ann Marie for a one-shot animated production from the Rankin/Bass studio. Rankin/Bass was contractually obligated to provide four films to “The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie,” an animated anthology series aimed at the kiddie audience. In an attempt to better connect with younger viewers, it was decided to incorporate Thomas’ Ann Marie into reconfigured versions of classic youth fiction.
In “That Girl in Wonderland,” Ann Marie is no longer an aspiring actress. Instead, she is unemployed and looking for work as a secretary. She arrives at the Wonder Book Company and is mistaken by its elderly owners – the gregarious Mr. Wonder and the haughty Mrs. Wonder – as an applicant for the vacant position of assistant editor. Ann Marie is given a temporary assignment: she needs to come up with an idea for the company’s big Christmas book release, and she only has one week to do the job.
Alas, Ann Marie is endlessly distracted. Her boyfriend Donald works in the same office building and he is constantly calling her for a date. An aggressively cheerful window washer peeks in on Ann Marie, while a pair of troglodyte secretaries (who were aware that Ann Marie has no editorial experience) bully her into bringing them coffee. Ann Marie’s tiny dog Freckle, who rides around in her purse, adds his yapping displeasure to the scene.
Ann Marie comes up with an idea for the Christmas book: reinventing classic stories with modern and funky twist endings. The film then puts Ann Marie and the other characters of “That Girl in Wonderland” into truncated versions of such books as “Cinderella,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Alice in Wonderland” and “Hansel and Gretel.” The Wonders love the idea and Ann Marie gets the full-time job…along with her own secretary!
There are three main problems with “That Girl in Wonderland.” The first is the animation, which is positively dreadful. One of the joys of “That Girl” was Thomas’ wildly expressive comedy performance, but the animated Ann Marie goes through the film with an unblinking, stolid expression. I believe the film was animated in Japan, and the local artists may have taken too much inspiration from the immobile masks used in Noh dramas. The other characters are mostly drawn in a grotesque manner, with exaggerated features and limited physical movement.
Since the animation is so stiff, “That Girl in Wonderland” relies heavily on dialogue to fuel the film. Unfortunately, there is too much dialogue, and the film gets weighed down in verbiage. Occasionally, an attempt is made to have some playful fun – Cinderella’s fairy godmother complains that she doesn’t want to pay for an extra day’s carriage rental – but the screenplay is mostly lame, and the breaks into reconfigured classic tales are never inventive.
And then, there is a problem with the material being very dated. A running joke of “That Girl in Wonderland” has Donald constantly calling Ann Marie’s office. That may have seemed endearing in the early 1970s, but it seems like stalker behavior today. Even worse, Ann Marie comes across as being painfully stupid in regard to money management – she barely gets a low-paying job, but the screenplay has her looking into extremely expensive guitar lessons and an interior designer’s overhaul of her one-room windowless apartment. It may have seemed like ditzy-cute in the day, but it seems ridiculous today.
Thomas provided the voice of Ann Marie, but it never sounds that she was enthused about the project. Her line readings are uncharacteristically flat and empty. None of the other “That Girl” cast regulars were recruited for this production, and the actors used on the soundtrack badly overact in an attempt to add some life to the inert production.
“That Girl in Wonderland” premiered on “The ABC Saturday Superstar Movie” on January 13, 1973, and was rerun a few times. It made no impression on the kiddie audiences, though Thomas may have recognized that children’s programming was in need of something better – the following year, she helmed the acclaimed made-for-TV offering “Free to Be…You and Me,” which remains one of the finest family-orient programs ever made for U.S. television.
“That Girl in Wonderland” pretty much vanished from sight after “The AABC Saturday Superstar Movie” went off the air. I’ve read that it was later rebroadcast on cable television, but I cannot confirm it. To date, there has never been a commercial home entertainment release of the title.
“That Girl in Wonderland” is also, as of this writing, not available for online viewing in its entirety. I purchased a collector-to-collector DVD based on a videotape of the 1973 broadcast. But the DVD was not a total waste – it included the broadcast’s original commercials, featuring the Jackson Five shilling for Alpha Bits and Sugar Bear insisting that a bowl of Super Sugar Crisps was more nutritious than a breakfast of pickles and soda. Ah, no wonder people refer to the 1970s as the era that good taste forgot!
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