How to foul up a classic: 11 notes on Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland
How many ways can a 3-D movie foul up a classic children's book? Let me count the ways.
1) The back story. In Lewis Carroll's original 1865 version, 7 year old Alice falls down the rabbit hole within the first 2 pages. In Burton's version, the 19 year old Alice loses her father, gains a suitor asking for her hand in marriage, discovers that her sister's fiance is fooling around her, and suffers about 15 other subplots just so she can appear authoritative and empowered when (spoiler alert) she returns to her 19th century "reality" by the end of the film.
2) The fall itself. In the book, Alice "fell very slowly, for she had plenty of time as she went down to look about her, and to wonder what was going to happen next." She falls so slowly, she grabs a jar of marmalade from a shelf, looks at it, and places it back on another shelf inside the tunnel. In the movie, Burton prefers speed and distraction, so Alice plunges as if she is on a World Disney ride.
3) The merging of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland with Through the Looking Glass. Just as in the 1951 Disney animated Alice in Wonderland, there's no attempt in Burton's version to distinguish between the two works, even though Looking Glass was published 6 years after Wonderland, and it has considerable differences of tone and theme. Carroll designed Through the Looking Glass around a chess game, while Wonderland chiefly used a deck of cards to create the royal hierarchy around the Queen of Hearts. The glib combination of these worlds in Burton's version leads to a final battle sequence involving murky card/chess piece soldiers fighting on a chess (?) board with what looks about 1000 squares or so. The coherent organization of each game, so important to structure of the books, is lost in the process, so you just get a fun bunch of nonsensical characters romping around in a world without any rules or laws. Burton's Alice is only vaguely faithful to the book when she first arrives in "Underland" and hunts for a door to escape. After that, all of the characters from both books are thrown together indiscriminately.
4) It turns out that Burton's Alice is actually the sequel to the original as Alice struggles to remember her former visit. This explains the air of weary sequelitis hanging over the movie.
5) In Carroll's version, Alice has an edge to her, proclaiming the tea-party "the stupidest" one "I ever was in all my life." When a footman who looks like a Fish says "I shall sit here, on and off, for days and days," Alice decides "there's no use talking to him. He's perfectly idiotic." Faced with a bottle that says "DRINK ME," she finds that "if you drink much from a bottle marked `poison,' it is almost certain to disagree with you, sooner or later." Given Carroll's interest in the Darwinian struggle for survival, Alice frequently faces the possibility of animals devouring each other, the possibility of disappearing altogether when she shrinks, and a multitude of rude creatures threatening her in various ways, but she's equal to every occasion.
6) In Burton's version, the 19 year old Alice gradually moves from passive acquiescence to Vorpel-sword-wielding warrior, but her transformation struck me as rigged and comparatively facile. Her victory is prophesied from the beginning, and I never noticed the bite of the original Alice in her dialogue written by Linda Woolverton. Burton's Alice does take upon herself to go save the Mad Hatter from imprisonment in the Queen of Heart's castle, so that's something. Mia Wasikowska's bemused Alice also hesitates for awhile when faced with the final battle with the Jabberwocky, but it never seemed that much of a challenge with a magic sword helping out. In comparison to the original Alice's spunk, this new one gets empowered by helpers (the Bandersnatch, the White Queen, etc.) and plot devices.
7) Was Anne Hathaway's arm-waving, ditsy, anti-violent Glenda Good Witch of the North White Queen meant to be an ironic variation on her goody goody public image?
8) And what of the Cheshire Cat? He becomes, along with the Dormouse and the White Rabbit, another cute Disney sidekick.
9) In Carroll's version, the Hatter appears briefly and memorably at the end of the tea party table in a scene that meditates on the nonsensical nature of time and repetitive social rituals. He is mad, but he has his moments, exposing Alice's hypocrisy by saying "Who's making personal remarks now?" When Alice says "I don't think," the Hatter cuts her off with "Then you shouldn't talk." Alice stomps off in a sulk, and we only see the Hatter in brief vignettes later such as the trial scene when he takes a bite from his tea cup in his nervousness.
10) In Burton's version, as played by Johnny Depp, the Hatter dominates the movie to the point where he becomes a sentimental bore, looking at Alice with sad freak eyes, and wishing that she wouldn't leave Underland in a way that reminded me the Scarecrow's mooning around Dorothy toward the end of The Wizard of Oz. By the end of Burton's Alice, all that remains of the Hatter's madness is his crazy red and pink makeup clashing with his light green contact lenses.
11) With the big release Alice in Wonderland, all of the wit, madness, and menace of Carroll's two classics get ground into the usual bland, safe, predigested Disney pap. No amount of digital green-screened 3-D technology and inventive art direction can make up for that.
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