Sunday, March 07, 2010

ALICE IN WONDERLAND 3D - what is Tim Burton trying to say here?

My response to ALICE IN WONDERLAND 3D was much the same as my response to Tim Burton's Roald Dahl adaptation, CHARLIE AND THE CHOCOLATE FACTORY. The production design, costumes, and sheer visual imagery were wondrous to behold. But Tim Burton had made poor choices regarding the narrative structure, tone and very heart of the subject matter.

So let's go back to the beginning. This movie originates in the children's novels Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. The novels were written by Charles Dodgson, an Oxford mathematician, better known as Lewis Carroll. On one level, the novels fall into the category of nonsense literature, in the same vein as Edward Lear. When the little girl Alice chases a small white rabbit, clothed in a waistcoat, down a rabbit hole, she enters a world that is surreal, sometimes sinister and that defies narrative logic. Potions and mushrooms make you larger or smaller. Animals talk, have tea parties and smoke hookah pipes. There are riddles, logic puzzles and chess moves; wonderful explorations of mirror-ing, double-ing and mathematical concepts; satirical sketches of donnish Oxford life; references to the Wars of the Roses - but ultimately, it's all just one giant non sequitor. Anything can happen because anything can follow. For a little child, this is a wonderfully liberating, but also an extraordinarily frightening concept. (The same conflicting reaction is at the heart of the most sinister of all the very sinister late Victorian and early Edwardian childrens' novels - Peter Pan. To this day, I am shocked that this is marketed as a children's novel rather than as horror.)

The genius of the original illustrations by Tenniel was to capture that strangeness - at once captivating and repulsive. Alice with her dark eyes and obnoxious self-confidence - the stern Victorian politicians anthropomorphicised into baffling characters. Wonderland is a world where one can fear drowning in a sea of one's own tears and where power is abused by a series of tyrannical and clearly insane aristos. It's hardly Disney. Unless of course you are watching the bland saccharine Disney version of the film. As adaptations go, it was faithful in the superficial - the characters were all there as were the each of the famous scenes in the right order - but completely failed to capture the sheer oddness of the world. To that end, Jonathan Miller's BBC film is my adaptation of choice - he fully explores the concept that Wonderland is really Oxford and makes the characters there so very close to real people, Wonderland isn't "other" or "under" but sits alongside reality.

Given how dark and surreal the source material is, I would've thought that Tim Burton would've been the perfect director for ALICE IN WONDERLAND 3D. And as the publicity stills were released I got more and more excited. I loved the make-up for Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter - he looked like a psychedelic version of McAdder. Helena Bonham Carter's encephelatic head as what I thought was the Queen of Hearts looked superb. Matt Lucas, who I'll always think of as the baby on Shooting Stars, looked born to play Tweedle-Dum and Tweedle-Dee. And when you looked down the cast list you could see lots of high-class British character actors in the voice roles, from Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat to most surprisingly and perfectly Barbara Windsor as the Doormouse. Most wonderfully of all, I was longing to Crispin Glover - a fascinating but little seen actor - as the Knave of Hearts. I suppose my suspicions might have been aroused by the casting of Australian Mia Wasikowska as Alice - not on the grounds that she can't act - she makes a perfectly decent fist of her role - but because she isn't a child. So there was obviously some serious re-writing at hand. And then, with the very appearance of the Tweedles and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) they were clearly conflating the two novels, most notably in the character that looks like the Queen of Hearts but is called the Red Queen.

The resulting film is a strange beast indeed, but in all the wrong ways. Script-writer Linda Woolverton (BEAUTY AND THE BEAST, MULAN, ALLADIN) has made Alice a teenager being pressured into marriage. She runs away from her fate and down the rabbithole, but refuses to believe that she has been there before, as a child, despite being haunted by recurring nightmares of talking caterpillars and smiling cats. When she reaches the Underland, which she had mistakenly called Wonderland, she finds a landscape of scorched earth, stormy skies and familiar characters suffering from post-traumatic stress syndrome. To echo LA Times reviewer, Kenneth Turan, the Mad Hatter's tea party seems to be set in a sort of ill-conceived Mordor and the Mad Hatter himself has lost his mind in reaction to the Red Queen's hostile take-over of Underland. When events get too much for him he trips into a pitch perfect Scottish accent, but this only serves to make him even more McAdderish! The loose plot sees Alice journey to the Red Queen's palace to capture the Vorpal Sword and free the Hatter. She then visits the White Queen and summons the courage to defeat the Jabberwocky on the frabjous day (calloo callay!) in a finale that would've mean more appropriate to LOTR.

Despite the lovely creations that are the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen and the lovely costumes for Alice, the movie feels rather dismal and flat. I suppose that can't be helped as this is a vanquished world, but somehow, that wasn't a problem for Narnia or Rohan. Alice is supposed to find herself but the transformation isn't particularly convincing. Back in the real world, the idea that she would then become a neo-feminist adventuress is ludicrous. I think the problem is that the movie shifts in tone rather abruptly. In the same scene, you'll have Johnny Depp playing it utterly straight as the traumatised hatter, but Anne Hathaway pastiching the idea of the pure, slightly unpractical, narcissistic White Queen, with her pure white dress but scarily black lips and nails. Both are fine, but do they belong in the same film? And the sheer ill-judgement of the 1980s dancing that the Hatter roles out in the penultimate scene defies description.

Overall, then, while I can see consistency of design, I didn't see a consistency of vision as to what this movie was really about and what it was trying to say. A fatal flaw, no matter how lovely the costumes. Burton refuses to let ALICE be a wonderfully nonsensical nonsequitor. He wants to give characters a back story and feeeeeelings. But at the same time, he doesn't take the time to actually explore them properly. Worst of all, with the exception of the rather lazy introduction of some real-world twins, nowhere do we see Alice's visions as subconscious reworkings of people she has seen in the real world.

Additional tags: Mia Wasikowska, Dariusz Wolski, Christopher Lee, Geraldine James, Tim Piggott-Smith, Frances de la Tour, Marton Csokas, Barbara Windsor, Leo Bill, Linda Woolverton.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND is on global release.

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