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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).

It also sort of makes sense for the film to play up the theme of a search for identity. In the originals, Alice is often mistaken for someone else by the more oblivious creatures—in Wonderland, for example, the perpetually late White Rabbit thinks she’s his serving girl Mary Ann, and sends her off on an errand to fetch his gloves. The strangeness of the environment often makes Alice doubt her own identity, even to the point of disassociating her body parts from herself; when she grows tremendously tall at one point, she imagines having to send a Christmas gift to her now far-away feet so that they’ll walk in the direction she wants to go.

And then there’s the creepy-beautiful scene in Looking Glass when she comes to a portion of the wood where things have no names. Alice befriends a faun who, nameless, doesn’t know she should be frightened of Alice, and who starts away in fear once they come out of the wood and each recovers their “labels.” See what I mean about serious fun?

But in Burton and Woolverton’s Wonderland, a blasted landscape laid waste by the depredations of the power-mad Queen of Hearts, there’s nothing so silly, satisfyingly scary or funny. Instead, we get a tale of good versus evil that steals from all over. The Queen of Hearts’ cards/soldiers have the metallic sheen, pinhole eyes, and long noses of the clone soldiers in the boring Star Wars movies; the valiant Dormouse is a nod to Reepicheep of Narnia; talking animals and magic swords are Narnian and Arthurian. There’s even a nod to The Wizard of Oz, with real-world characters mirrored as fantastical counterparts in Wonderland (although unlike the 1939 movie, they’re played by different actors in each world).

It may seem petty to point out all the homages and references—it’s not like there are that many truly original plots in literature and film—but there’s little else to do while you’re waiting for Alice to slay the damn dragon already. You could tick off the female empowerment and psychological growth messages that are dutifully inserted at various intervals, like dietary supplements.

In this film’s real world, Alice is 20 years old, about to be married off to a chinless wonder of the British aristocracy, and she escapes to Wonderland to evade responding to his very public marriage proposal. There she finds a “bad” female role model, the vain and cruel Queen of Hearts, and a “good” one, the morally superior White Queen, whose vows won’t allow her to kill anything or anyone. In Wonderland, she takes control, refusing to follow a supposedly predestined path in order to save her new friends. And Alice finally discovers that Wonderland is a real place, i.e. her “crazy” dreams are real and are worth pursuing—an insight that allows her to return to the real world, turn down the marriage proposal, and sail off to China, on a ship called—wait for it—Wonder. The whole thing is obvious, tired, and is spoon-fed to the audience, who—particularly the smart little girls who should love this story—deserve better.

Burton, who very early in his career worked at Disney as an animator, must have mixed feelings about doing a film now for the Mouse Factory. Some of his early drawings, recently on display at the Museum of Modern Art, depict the company as a soulless devourer turning out blocks of processed cheese product. Woolverton is part of the new, hipper Disney, having written or contributed to films that include The Lion King, Mulan, and Beauty and the Beast. Maybe this Alice is the film Burton thinks Walt Disney would want—humorless, plodding, but with an uplifting message. But Uncle Walt, for all his faults, would want us to have some fun.


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About Grinning Cat

  • 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!