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Movie Review: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland – Where’s the Fun?

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I didn’t expect, or particularly want, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to be “faithful” to the Lewis Carroll books — much as I love them, and have loved them, since I first read them decades ago. But I didn’t expect, or want, this new film version to leave me so depressed, either, and that it certainly did.

Yes, depressed even more than disappointed, although disappointed was part of the mix, particularly considering the talent involved in making the film both in front of and behind the camera, or should I say at the computer keyboard. Tim Burton is a fantastic (in all senses of the word) filmmaker, and the majority of his films are full of quirky, vibrant life even when they go off the rails. But Alice, for all its technical wonder, is missing something vital at its core.

I’m tempted to say that the missing something is innocence, or even a belief in the possibility of innocence, but I don’t think that’s it. I think this Alice is missing a sense of fun—or a sense of what a serious business fun can be.

The film does have a sense of humor, albeit a sarcastic one. Helena Bonham Carter’s bulbous-headed, imperious Queen of Hearts is a caricature of every high school bitch-goddess who makes sure the minion-ettes surrounding her aren’t too pretty, lest they accidentally outshine her. Crispin Glover, as her flunky/hit man Stayne, has recaptured some of that George McFly intensity and mixed it with a solid helping of Basil Rathbone-esque ham to make a tasty villain. And Matt Lucas, doubled to create Tweedledum and Tweedledee, is/are every chubby, cowardly fat boy that’s ever wiped his runny nose with his sleeve.

But a sense of humor is different than a sense of fun. Lewis Carroll had both. His witty verbal wordplay in both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass is still wondrous to behold some 150 years after their composition. More than that, he uses a deft touch as his Alice — polite but not perfect, curious, and with a bit of a temper herself — encounters a collection of vain, self-important, pompous, thoughtless (though rarely overtly cruel), anxious, fretful creatures. In other words, adults, as an intelligent, observant child, or a shy, bookish bachelor with a weird fondness for little girls, sees them.

A sense of humor tells you what’s funny. A sense of fun gives you a reason to play. This film makes everything so world-shatteringly serious. I think director Tim Burton and the film’s screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, made a huge mistake in turning this Alice film into a battle between good and evil, with Alice the long-awaited savior/champion who must defeat the Queen of Hearts’ ultimate weapon, the dragon-like Jabberwocky, on behalf of the good White Queen. That’s Anne Hathaway, playing Glinda to Bonham Carter’s Wicked Witch of the West, although Hathaway’s shiny white palace reminded me more of the evil snow-loving sorceress in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.

Even the Mad Hatter, the original poster boy for larky, carefree ADD, is dragged into this tired good vs. evil conflict—presumably to give Burton’s favorite actor, Johnny Depp, more screen time to show off his green contact lenses and orange hair, and the chance to try out some impenetrable accents. (Scottish? Irish? Cockney? Not sure.) 

One of the reliefs in reading the Alice books is that “good” and “evil” are mostly beside the point there. It’s not a moral or a religious universe, just a place where strange things happen and bossy creatures tell one what to do—again, a child’s view of the craziness that is the adult world. Even the Queen of Hearts, with her fondness for separating heads from bodies, isn’t actually bloodthirsty—she’s just tyrannical, vain, and short-tempered, with a limited repertoire when it comes to dealing with problems.

Understand that I don’t think the film should have created this kind of world in particular; the books support dozens of different interpretations, from the sexual to the mathematical to the political. It was part of Burton and Woolverton’s job to re-imagine the story for themselves, and Burton played to his strengths, and the strength of this medium: the film is visually rich but verbally skimpy. And I can certainly understand wanting to give the film a plot of some kind—the books, particularly Wonderland, have virtually none (in Looking Glass, structured as a chess game, Alice at least has a goal to hang her adventures on—to reach the eighth square and become a Queen herself—that imposes a teensy bit of order on the craziness).

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  • Sahar

    Some excellent thoughts, Adam, that finally helped me understand why I felt this vague sense of dissatisfaction after seeing this movie. If taken apart from the original Alice in Wonderland stories, it is a great movie, but when compared to the complexity and quirkiness of the originals, it falls a little flat, especially when taking into consideration that both Tim Burton and Johnny Depp worked on this movie. Again, fantastic piece Adam!