My thought exiting this movie was: Did Tim Burton actually read Lewis Carroll’s works? It doesn’t seem so. Mr. Burton’s critical failure may be that he only went as far as Disney’s animated adaptation in his research. Not surprising; they’re the ones bankrolling this version.
Alice in Wonderland, very loosely based on Mr. Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass: What Alice Found There, is neither a coherent adaptation of the source nor its predecessor, Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland. The opening credits, complete with Danny Elfman’s banal score, a lifelong obsession with Bernard Herrmann’s duplets and triplets in The Day The Earth Stood Still, alert us to impending boredom. In the pallid hues of an aristocratic estate we find Alice (Mia Wasikowska), now nineteen, being bartered off to Hamish (Leo Bill, with a collar so high and hair so red he resembles Beaker from The Muppet Show), the son of a ridiculously-named businessman, Lord Ascot (Tom Piggott-Smith).
This is, essentially, Mr. Burton’s stodgy metaphor for alienation which has been recycled ad nauseam in almost every film he’s ever made. Like Steven Spielberg, Tim Burton grew up something of a creative nerd in suburbian southern California—Burbank specifically—feeling distant from his peers. In Mr. Burton’s world, anything “normal” is evil. How different can he be when an entire chain of retail stores (Hot Topic) thrives off the deep pockets of an entire demographic of affluent, suburban emo teenagers? In April of 2009, Newsweek ran an article titled “Generation Me” about the entitlement sensibilities of Gen-X-ers whose flower power-era parents decided to break with their authoritarian progenitors—following perhaps Dr. Spock’s advice, sparing the rod. The result is an entire generation of children who were told they’re all special, without qualification and without effort. The conceit in Mr. Burton’s work is that these borderline sociopaths only exist in the form of goth subculture teens dressed in dark clothing and eyeliner so excessive it would make Adam Lambert retch. The truth, however, is that both these devotees as well as the other suburbanites of the Ralph Lauren variety are copping to different sides of the same pop culture machine.
The film revisits the fantastical world of Alice’s childhood she’s merely forgotten. The real inspiration, despite all statements to the contrary, seems to have been Lewis Carroll’s nonsense poem, Jabberwocky. The maniacal Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) unleashed the Jabberwocky, burning entire villages to the ground to childishly spite the favored White Queen (Anne Hathaway). This leads inexorably, as written in a prescient scroll, to Alice’s return and the quest to slay the mythical beast. From the poem:
And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous* day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.
* “Frabjous” is possibly a portmanteau of “fabulous,” “great,” and “joyous.”
The problem with Mr. Burton’s adaptation resembles that of Spike Jonze’s spin on Where The Wild Things Are. Resting laurels heavily on pre-existing knowledge from the source material, the director hasn’t given viewers unfamiliar with Carroll’s works any understanding of the motivations behind each character’s choices in the movie. Why does the mischievous Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) suddenly decide to help Alice? Is he bored, and merely trying to amuse himself? What additional security does Alice present Bayard (Timothy Spall), the Queen’s indentured hound whose wife and pups are at her mercy, to persuade his sympathy? No background whatsoever is given, from initial intentions to their invariably sympathetic turns, to understand the motivation driving most of the character arcs, save perhaps the Bandersnatch—a monster resembling a morbidly obese cat with shark-like rows of teeth, held captive to the queen’s bidding—whose one kindess bestowed by Alice is an exception in his otherwise miserable life. It becomes, therefore, impossible to empathize, fear for or care about any outcome since at any given moment yet another deus ex machina could appear out of nowhere and help Alice along her way for no clear benefit.
It’s worth noting that, despite the facile interpretation of the Red Queen mostly regurgitating the animated queen’s obsession with decaptitation as if it were the only thing Burton absorbed about the original story, Helena Bonham Carter’s performance is engaging. Amusingly surrounded by sycophants wearing prosthetic deformities to ease her self-consciousness about her colossal head, she imbues her character with a snarky charm. But this, too, is a byproduct of a self-aware phase in Hollywood filmmaking, wherein pop culture has become both the butt of the joke as well as the promotional sponsor—think Shrek with its grating references to Starbucks, et. al. But Ms. Carter seems to know the material is shit, and revels in it. Only when the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) falls into a trance, uttering tangential observations in a nearly-demonic tone resembling a Scottish brogue, is Mr. Depp’s versatility as an actor even remotely near its potential. Crispin Glover is terribly miscast, looking like a poor man’s Snake Plissken but carrying himself in a phony swagger that’s more George McFly than Red Knight. Anne Hathaway looks like a cross between a muppet and a cadaver with all but her eyes and eyebrows covered in white. The lurid result would have made sense if her character had a thinly-veiled ulterior motive, but there’s none to be found or even hinted at.
Mr. Burton succeeds as a conceptualist and art director. Consider when he delegated the task of direction to Henry Selick for the resonant A Nightmare Before Christmas. That film sings, each character inhabiting Burton’s cheerfully-spooky underworld with a sense of purpose. The stop-motion camera work dances about the town. Here, the characters seem misplaced and the cinematography is bland and lifeless by comparison, worsened by the 3-D process. Alice’s climactic battle against the Jabberwocky feels entirely anemic, lacking the mythic ferocity of Gandalf’s defeat of the Balrog in Peter Jackson’s The Two Towers.
In his article, Avatar, the French New Wave and the morality of deep-focus (in 3-D), Jim Emerson considers it an injustice to force depth perspective through shallow depth of field in 3-D, disallowing viewers the choice where to direct their gaze. It’s unnerving enough for your brain to perceive three-dimensional depth when you still can’t focus on that fellow standing behind someone else. In Alice in Wonderland, color is destroyed by the process, dimly-lit scenes are rendered indiscernible, and CG animations become blurry and distracting. It takes considerable effort to concentrate on the story while your eyes struggle to adjust to this inane gimmick for the first third of the film.
The proverbial nail in this 108-minute coffin (which feels three times as long) is, as Pauline Kael put it in her review of Mr. Burton’s Batman (1989), that he takes his angst only so far and not far enough. His hatred for conformity manifests only in ludicrous caricatures of authority and status. Consider Hamish with his maloccluded sneer and beak of a nose. The chimney-neck costume, designed by Colleen Atwood who worked on several, equally-preposterous period pieces (Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd, Memoirs of a Geisha, Nine and Chicago, among others), seems to be a replica of the iconic fellow on the February 18, 1939, cover of The New Yorker. But this approach makes us laugh at these comical figures, rather than be truly unsettled by any genuine, inner ugliness—think John Gielgud as the obliviously racist Lord Irwin in Attenborough’s Gandhi. This makes characters from which we can easily distance ourselves, and reduces Mr. Burton’s seething contempt for establishment to mere whimsy. It has no cleverness, no punch to the gut while winking and smiling. Mr. Burton is all smiles, which leaves us baffled at the duplicity of his film’s conclusion. The message he intended, that Alice should do according to her own desires and forge her own path, is beset by the irony of choosing commercialism over imagination. And there’s the rub.
Alice in Wonderland • Dolby® Digital surround sound in select theatres • Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1 • Running Time: 108 minutes • MPAA Rating: PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar. • Distributed by Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures