Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wonderland Goes Under: A Look at Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

Oh dear. Why, Tim Burton? There was a time when I thought we were on the same page. I had Beetle Juice memorized by the time I was seven and I still have a huge crush on Jack Skellington. Sure, your Sleepy Hollow has nothing to do with Washington Irving’s but you put Ewan in Big Fish and Ed Wood makes me howl with glee. I always enjoy a movie with a dark side, and with you that’s a guarantee. Lately, however, it’s been touch and go. Your Charlie and the Chocolate Factory left me confused and mildly horrified (not in a good way), and Sweeney Todd was okay….but you cut out Kiss Me. So when I heard you had gotten your hands on one of my favorite things (counting both Alice books as one thing) I didn’t know whether to be excited or concerned. For the sake of anticipation, I decided to be excited. So what if I tend to wince when you use the word “reimagining”? It’s Alice. Under a subversive and gothic eye, it would be fabulous, right? Besides, there are literally dozens of movie adaptations of Alice…despite the fact that the books have been called unfilmable due to their heavy reliance on word play, clever jokes, and obviously, nonsense. But still one more wouldn’t hurt, right? Right? Especially a version starring not one but several actors I admire and enjoy. Right? (Below be possible spoilers).

Well maybe this would be the case if Tim Burton’s new movie were an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books but it isn’t. It’s an appropriation of Alice’s most iconic imagery squeezed into a cookie-cutter formula and overloaded with CGI. It bares some visual resemblance to Lewis Carroll’s world (and I’m being kind saying that) but under the surface, there’s little to salvage. I’ve been suspecting this since I saw the first trailer a few months ago and I went in fearing I wouldn’t like it. And I was right! The plot summary didn’t do anything to assuage my nerves—if anything it made them worse. See—this isn’t Alice exactly. It’s a sequel. In this sequel, Alice, now 19 years old and faced with the prospect of an unwanted marriage, returns to the Wonderland of her childhood to find it in chaos. In chaos and—wait for it—in need of a hero. Unfortunately, she’s forgotten everything and it’s up to her Wonderland friends to make her remember so she can learn how to fly again and fight Captain Hook and rescue her kids…wait. Sorry, I seem to have wandered into Hook. Why? Maybe because Hook has the EXACT same plot. At first, I took this as a positive. I love Hook. It manages to be a new story while still being faithful to the book that inspired it. So I went to see Tim Burton’s Alice figuring there would be no recitation of The Walrus and the Carpenter but still hoping for plenty of references to the books.

It's not Alice. It’s NOTHING like the books. They stole bits of Narnia (armor, sword, battle, chosen one) and The Wizard of Oz (young girl overcoming evil female tyrant with aid of freaky friends) and plugged them in accordingly. They only use the most famous characters. No Gryphon, no Mock Turtle, no White Knight, no Duchess, no Man in White Paper. In Carroll’s books, Alice’s “friends” in Wonderland are notoriously unfriendly. Many of them are downright mean. Here there are “good guys” and “bad guys.” Here the sense of eeriness that pervades the books has been replaced by outright violence. Here the place is actually called Underland. Why?!? The reason for the books' immediate popularity back in the 19th century was that they weren't didactic and preachy like most of the literature that plagued Victorian children.This isn't the first Alice movie to add a moral of some kind, but holy cow, by the time this movie is over, you WILL know that you MUST Believe in Yourself, Believe in Impossible Things, and Be Loyal to Your Friends. You WILL, goddammit!

The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) dominated the advertising for this movie so it’s no surprise he served as Alice’s right-hand man here, evoking Dorothy’s three faithful comrades more than Carroll’s character. Unfortunately, all the warmth that flows naturally between the four friends of The Wizard of Oz felt forced and manufactured here, due largely to the fact that I could only understand every other word Depp said. Also the character seemed have split-personality disorder and went into a Scottish brogue every time he got angry. What happened to his fight with Time (the reason he was always having tea)? Did he and Time make up? I love Johnny Depp and think he’s a great actor, but this performance missed the mark for me. Meanwhile the movie treated the March Hare (voice of Paul Whitehouse) like a piece of airport luggage, shuffling him around from scene to scene, not really doing anything with him. They let him spend one scene banging things about in a kitchen, throwing peppery soup everywhere (an hommage to the Duchess's Cook and one of my favorite scenes in Wonderland) but for the most part, the movie ignores him. He and the Mad Hatter shared maybe one scene together. They’re supposed to be (for the most part) inseparable. Also I couldn't understand a damn thing he said either. The Dormouse (voice of Barbara Windsor) has gone from a treacle-loving narcoleptic to a smaller, more annoying version of Reepicheep from Prince Caspian, only female and fond of popping eyes out. I wanted to scream every time the little shit appeared onscreen. The White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) and the Tweedles (Matt Lucas) barely got enough screen time to register as characters. The Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) showed up as a sexually threatening version of the Huntsman from Snow White. The Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) and the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) both made it out okay but there was too much warm fuzziness tacked onto both of them. Despite her fantastic performance, Helena’s Bonham-Carter’s turn as the Queen of Hearts (mistaken for the Red Queen) was undercut by the movie’s insistence on giving her a sob-story to explain her evil, head-slicin’ ways. Anne Hathaway gave wonderful life to an awesome character—who I guess was supposed to be the White Queen though she bears no resemblance to Carroll’s dowdy creation—a pacifist queen who had a mad scientist lab strewn with cadavers! Make a movie about this character, Tim Burton! Just make her the villain because I am sick to death of these gorgeous (pure white) princesses being on the side of the right. To add to the confusion, the movie decided to name everything. The Dormouse, the Caterpillar, the Queens, the Eat Me-Drink Me refreshments. They all had completely pointless, hard-to-keep-track-of names. Why? I don't know. Why is a raven like a writing desk?

Worst of all is Alice herself. I didn't like Mia Wasikowska’s performance, which is a shame because I've seen her in HBO’s In Treatment and she is a fantastic actor. Here she made the same face throughout and acted vaguely sleepy. Book Alice has presented a problem for filmmakers over the decades. Even Walt Disney called her a heartless character, but I've never found Book Alice that heartless. She has moments of confusion, bewilderment, joy, anger, and wit. It all depends on how you send her through. What I love about the Alice books is that they really ARE about female empowerment, if you want them to be. They are vague enough to project and interpret without rehashing. Alice is the only one who stands up to the Queen of Hearts with a confidence she's gained throughout her journey. She had moments of weakness but she still stands up for herself. Reviews have praised the movie for being “refreshingly feminist” (because Alice, of course, dons armor and takes up a sword). I didn't see anything "refreshingly feminist" about this movie, just the same underdeveloped anachronisms you see in all these movies: she doesn't wear a corset! she doesn't want to marry the jerk they've picked out for her! she’s able to leap Victorian gender boundaries in a single bound! They didn't give Alice her own journey and mission. They just turned her into Elizabeth Swann from the Pirates movies and halfway through morphed her into Narnia’s Peter Pevensie. Just because it ends with Alice in armor with a sword doesn't make it empowering. In the books, she grapples with her identity and finally calls for an end to the nonsense. Here, they cut out her vital inner monologue that so defines her character in the books. I felt no sense of passion for her. It didn't feel like her fight. I would love to see a girl hashing it out with a monster more often, but that's not Alice.

It's not just the differences from the book that bothered me. Most of the performances are very good, but the story was so explosive and uneven, I had trouble latching onto anything. There was NO character development apart from a bit of business in the beginning setting up Alice as Not Like Other Girls but before we could really get to know her, she fell down the Rabbit Hole and off we went in the CGI. There was too much CGI. The visuals overpowered everything else. The sound was so choppy, I could barely hear the actors (Depp’s character being only one offender). Also the story feels like an after-thought necessary to give the special effects something to do. Alice is supposed to be returning to Wonderland, but since she's been gone the Red Queen (read: The Queen of Hearts) has taken over. Um...then what was going on the first time Alice went? The queen was still calling for executions and being generally tyrannical. Why didn't they need a champion then (and why was little Alice painting the roses red IN FRONT of the Queen?)? They make much of the fact that she remembers her previous trips as dreams (which makes sense because in the books they are!) but we only get to hear about the dreams. We never see them. I would have liked the movie to open with Alice in Wonderland as a kid and waking up or….but then if they’re not dreams, how did she get back? What made her think they were dreams? In the beginning, we see her in bed having just woken up from one of these “dreams.” Um??? Did she float up from the rabbit hole and not realize? Also everything is so rushed, you can barely follow along when she finally catches on to the "truth." They do show some flashbacks about ¾ through that purposely replicate the famous John Tenniel illustrations, but these do nothing except taunt the audience with what might have been. Speaking of which, certain scenes (Alice chasing the White Rabbit, the Mad Tea Party actually sitting down at their tea party) gave me chills thinking about how this movie might have turned out had it been more faithful to the books but none of these lasted long enough. I expected more from screenwriter, Linda Woolverton (who also penned Disney’s Beauty and the Beast) but I was disappointed.

I think what made me angriest about this movie is that it had VALUABLE COMMODITY written all over it. Disney knows Alice is popular (or Alice imagery is popular). Disney knows Tim Burton is popular. Disney knows Hot Topic is popular and trades in the likes of Alice and Tim Burton. Ergo: movie. But this isn’t an Alice movie. It’s barely a Tim Burton movie. The whole movie doesn’t have half the creativity of the waiting room scenes in Beetle Juice. In my humble opinion, Burton needs to stop “reimagining” things and go back to his own ideas. As for Lewis Carroll’s books, gone is the satire, gone is the humor, gone is the eeriness, and most baffling of all, gone is the nonsense. Carroll’s books were built on nonsense and here his world comes across as Generic Fantasyland in Peril. In Carroll’s books, the fantasy becomes oppressive and Alice’s final assertion of self is to wake up and come back to reality. But where’s the buck in that? Alice gets made into a movie about once a decade so hopefully, this won't be the last impression the Alice books make on the cinema, but it will be this generation's impression of what they're about and that PISSES me off.

And there was no recitation of The Walrus and the Carpenter. Not that I was expecting one.


  1. I feel yah. I saw it and I didn't hate it but when it ended I was like eh. I also turned to my friend at the ending and said, "yea right." I love some girl power, but it was just SO ridiculous. I also was wondering if I missed a Lewis Carroll book!

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  3. I know, right? I have a pretty open mind when it comes to suspending disbelief but that was much too much. Thanks for reading.

  4. Ugh Im disappointed to hear this. I still havent seen it, but as I fully trust both your judgements on such matters, my hopes are very low. Why, Tim Burton, WHYY?