Alice In Wonderland (2010) – Alice in Wonderless-Land…
Is it wrong to criticise a film adaptation of a children’s book for being watered down for kids? Probably, so I’d better justify myself before I lash into Tim Burton’s lavish, hollow, loveless and curiously wonderless CGI fest.
I studied Children’s Literature as a module on my degree course, and just as anyone studying Film (as I also did) will inevitably run up against “Citizen Kane” as a kind of film making 101, it’s almost impossible to study Children’s Lit without reading, analysing and appreciating “Alice in Wonderland” and it’s sequel, “Through the Looking Glass”, and their influence on Children’s books and popular culture.
Lewis Carroll‘s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland”, to give it it’s full title, always struck me as a rather callous and chilly piece of work, where a stubborn and argumentative young girl spends her journey getting involved in nonsense disagreements with Wonderland’s array of fantastical creatures.
Unlke C S Lewis‘ Narnia, or Tolkien’s Middle Earth, there is no real detailed topography for Wonderland, and to me it came to resemble more of a literary desert island, where a bunch of quarrelsome and combustible castaways from the distant shores of Heraldry (The Gryphon) or Nursery Rhyme (Humpty Dumpty) washed up together, doomed to have the same conversations over and over again for eternity.
Which in some respects, has come true – quickly typing “Alice in Wonderland” into IMDb returns no less than twenty four matches, ranging from 1903 to 2011. Most conspicuous in that list is Disney’s 1951 adaptation, the version perhaps most responsible for many people’s perception of the story.
The Disney-fied version re-imagined Alice as a beautiful, blond haired, princess-like character, very different from the scowling, sour-faced Alice of Tenniel’s indelible illustrations, which are so integral to the “feel” of the original books. His interpretation of Carroll’s creatures were of a forlorn, grouchy and threadbare menagerie, not a bunch of cuddly cartoon characters.
Also, I suspect, the source material of “Alice in Wonderland”, and the myth behind it – the little girl who inspired the story, and the exact nature of the relationship between her and the author, Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, are perhaps of more interest to grown ups these days.
There are countless books on the subject, and enough debate to keep scholars going for another few centuries at least – did Dodgson harbour pedophile tendencies towards his young muse, or are we viewing a Victorian ideal of innocence and beauty, where pre-pubescent girls were idolised, through our suspicious 21st century filter?
So onto Tim Burton‘s extravagant version. Surely, if any director could harness the creepy, timeless nature of this oft-told tale, Burton could?
Perhaps the Tim Burton of the Nineties could – the Tim Burton of Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Ed Wood, and Sleepy Hollow could.
Tim Burton has been one of the most visionary and influential (not to say successful) directors of the past quarter century. His input on popular culture is so strong that even my girlfriend, who normally describes movies as “that film with that guy in” can identify the visual motifs of a “Tim Burton movie”.
So the perfect guy for the material, right? Wrong…
Burton’s popular appeal has been so great that audiences have been prepared to overlook his fairly frequent duds, so it’s easy to forget that the past decade or so for Burton has been pretty much a string of high profile stinkers.
What went wrong? We know Burton can handle the big budget blockbuster – his twisted gothic visuals were about the only reason to watch “Batman” and “Batman Returns”, so why did his remake of “Planet of the Apes” turn into such an embarrassing farce?
We know Burton can “do” Roald Dahl – his “James and the Giant Peach” was quite wonderful, so why did his “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” explode all over our screens in such a demented, disorganised, gaudy splat?
And as for the vastly overblown and overrated “Sweeney Todd”, is it possible such a dreary, painful experience could come from the same man who gave us “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”?
Tim Burton’s “Alice” is a sequel to “Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass”. We meet a grown up Alice (Mia Wasikowska) as she is traveling to a posh garden party with her mother. There she receives a proposal of marriage from a rather unappealing ginger haired toff. Luckily, a white rabbit appears on the scene, and she runs after it, and then takes a tumble down a rabbit-hole underneath a rather Burton-esque tree…
So far, so familiar, but on arrival in Wonderland, it seems she’s been here before, although doesn’t remember. The creatures she meets – including Tweedledum & Tweedledee, the Cheshire Cat, the March Hare, and of course, Johnny Depp’s headlining role, the Mad Hatter – have been waiting for her to return.
It seems Wonderland has fallen under the rule of the Red Queen, and it has been foretold that she would return and defeat the Jabberwocky on the “Frabjous Day”, free Wonderland from the Red Queen’s despotic grip, and return the benevolent White Queen to power.
I sat down to watch this version with very little knowledge of what to expect – I’d seen no trailers, read no reviews – and one of my pre-viewing complaints about “Alice in Wonderland” as suitable material for a film was that it actually has very little in the way of plot.
Linda Woolverton’s sequel idea solves this problem by introducing this rather formulaic quest-style plot, but in doing so, robs Alice with any meaningful (or meaningless) discussions with the characters as she races from A to B to fulfill her destiny. Without the conversations that are so familiar, it reduces these timeless icons of children’s literature to mere sidekicks on Alice’s journey.
Some come off better than others. Stephen Fry’s Cheshire Cat is beautifully realised in CGI, floating serenely around Alice and other characters before disappearing, smile last, as you would expect.
Helena Bonham-Carter’s Red Queen is confusing, as she is a combination of the Red Queen from “Through the Looking Glass” (She has chess piece soldiers), and the Queen of Hearts from “Wonderland” (Screaming “Off with his head!” every couple of seconds, etc.)
She is also one of the film’s most striking creations, as Bonham-Carter’s head has been digitally enlarged and popped back onto a tiny body, presumably to reflect the Queen’s inflated ego. Performance-wise, she seems to borrow far too much from Miranda Richardson’s Queenie from “Blackadder II”, but without her childish, spiteful sense of fun.
Little Britain’s Matt Lucas also gets some peculiar, hall-of-mirrors-style facial distortions from the effects department’s box of tricks – while the chunky twins run a little bit like Super Mario, in that telltale computer animated way, it’s queasily obvious that Mr Lucas’ real chubby face is peering out from under there.
The March Hare, voiced by Paul Whitehouse, is irritatingly Jar Jar Binks like, and the usually demented Crispin Glover is under used and strangely buttoned down as the Knave of Hearts, the Red Queen’s right hand man.
Ann Hathaway has some fun as the White Queen, a monarch so saintly she has taken a vow of non-violence, which leads her to almost lose her lunch when she sees violence on the battleground.
Then there is the Jabberwocky, and Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter.
Tenniel’s original illustration of the Jabberwocky is so wonderfully evocative, so why hasn’t Tim Burton and his team used it in the creation of their Jabberwocky? It’s right there, that’s what the Jabberwocky looks like, you’ve got the tools, why not give everyone what they want to see – the Jabberwocky!
Instead, they’ve plumped for a standard issue, CGI dragon type thing, which looks like it was pinched from Peter Jackson‘s Recycle Bin.
Also, in trying to pad out the wafer thin plot, they’ve also given some shape and form to two other creatures from the Jabberwocky poem, the Bandersnatch and the Jub Jub Bird – two creatures that stirred the imagination by the sheer lack of how they were described originally. But here, the Bandersnatch is turned into a gigantic, snarling tasmanian devil-like creature, and the Jub Jub bird is – well, like a big angry bird.
After Depp’s peculiar and mannered take on Willy Wonka in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”, here he attempts to reinvent another popular character from Children’s Literature, the Mad Hatter.
Here, though, the role is padded out, presumably to give such a headlining act as Depp a larger percentage of screen time. It doesn’t work.
The Mad Hatter is now a quirky, gap toothed, frizzy haired basketcase, with back story (he once made hats for the White Queen, before he went a bit…mad), who is also a bit bi-polar. He veers between a stammering, absent-minded, English-accented fool during his quiet moments, to a glowering avenger with a rough Scottish brogue when getting ready for a fight.
It simply doesn’t make any sense, and Depp milks it for all it’s worth, and it’s such an infruriatingly schticky performance it’s virtually impossible to feel any warmth for the character. Depp is a wonderful actor at times, but when he feels the need to turn the bizarre-o-meter all the way up, it gets old very quickly.
There are a few moments of fun to be had – there was something very Python-esque about the Red Queen’s group of toadies trying to suck up to her by wearing false large noses, ears, chins etc. to make her feel she was normal; and I loved the squirmy, photo-real look of the Frog Footman twitching around as the Queen accused him of stealing the tarts – this film does with frogs what “Chocolate Factory” did for squirrels.
In all, though, this is two hours of joyless, wonderless noise and charmless images. Perhaps fifteen years ago, Burton would have had the energy to put his own spin on the material, but these days he seems listless and content to rely on peculiar CGI effects to compensate for his exhausted imagination. I’m sure the kids will enjoy it, though…