Observations: 1903 film provides first peek down the rabbit hole

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The Independent Culture

Move over Tim Burton. In the week that Hollywood's eminent eccentric releases his big-budget, 3D extravaganza, the first-ever film of Alice in Wonderland has been rediscovered and is fast becoming a YouTube sensation. Made in 1903, just eight years after the birth of cinema, the extraordinary piece of film history was thought to be lost forever. Its director, Cecil Hepworth, had gone bankrupt in 1924 and the negatives of his back catalogue were melted down for silver. Then in 1963 a cinema in Hove discovered an original tinted print in a dusty storeroom. "It really is a tragic object to look at," says Robin Baker, head curator of the BFI National Archive. "The emulsion is flaking off the print." Though several scenes are damaged beyond repair, the BFI restored what was left and is now streaming it, free, online.

At the time, the 12-minute film was the longest ever to have been made in England. "It really was the blockbuster of 1903," says Baker. "What you're seeing is British cinema moving a step closer to the feature film."

As such the BFI is billing it as the Avatar of its day, but how does it compare with our modern-day blockbusters? At only 9 minutes long, it doesn't lack for paciness. A rollicking piano soundtrack (albeit added in 2010) ratchets up the suspense. There are special effects – Alice shrinks and grows before our eyes, a hallucinatory, bushy Cheshire Cat floats in a tree, a baby turns magically into a squirming black piglet. There's even a high-octane chase as Alice is pursued through the park by an angry pack of cards. The real charm of the piece, though, lies in its utter faithfulness to John Tenniel's original illustrations. This is the Alice we all remember from childhood, the pages coming to life in jerky moving pictures like something from Alice's dream. Just wonderful – who needs the IMAX?

The film also screens in BFI Mediatheques across the country and on the big screen at the BFI Southbank, London SE1 (Bfi.org.uk) on 12 and 14 March