[23 July 2009]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Most have heralded it as a match made in fantasy filmmaking heaven—Tim Burton and Lewis Carroll. The mad genius behind Edward Scissorhands and A Nightmare Before Christmas taking on the quintessential freak show fairy tale—Alice in Wonderland…except, that’s not actually what is happening. With the ‘Net abuzz with news of a recently released teaser trailer for the upcoming Disney effort (March 2010 is the proposed time frame for its debut), it’s interesting to note what this new version of Alice is… and is not.
First off, this is not a long awaited faithful interpretation of Carroll’s work by Burton. Instead, from reading early script reviews and the available online synopsis, the eccentric A-list director is taking the Alice characters and reworking them, Hook style, into a more modern, epic-oriented work. In this total reimagining of the tale, Alice is a teen, runs away from a party turned proposal, and ends up back in Wonderland. There she helps the White Queen defeat the evil that is her Red sister with the help of some familiar players from both Volumes of Carroll’s creative lore.
Huh? Doesn’t exactly sound like the “Walrus and the Carpenter”, does it? While the early word had casting run from inspired (Crispin Glover as the Knave of Hearts) to tired (Johnny Depp—yes AGAIN—as the Mad Hatter), the one thing you could count on was Burton’s vision. Part veiled Victorian Gothic, a smidgen of Edward Gorey, and a lot of his own adolescent insecurities, his style usually offers up memorable images—just look at such imaginative works as The Corpse Bride, Beetlejuice, and Sleepy Hollow. But this critic for one was rather underwhelmed by the initial pre-production stills, and now the trailer comes along to inspire even more concern. While it’s still too early to tell, this may be the first time that Burton has been caught copying himself—and doing it rather ineffectually.
Naturally, it’s not fair to completely dismiss this Alice. After all, a few minutes of character, taken out of context, does not mean the movie is a failure. But judging by Johnny Depp’s blousy redheaded interpretation of the Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter (yes—AGAIN! ) and her bobble-headed Red Queen, and the humpty-dumpty dreariness of Tweedledee and Tweedledum, it’s going to take a lot of whimsy to overcome some basic design flaws. Besides, if Burton was so perfect for this material, why did he accept the whole “girl power” take on the tale? Why not simply go with Carroll’s original ideas and bring them to life in whatever artistic way—CG, stop-motion, traditional animation, live action - the sequences required?
The answer, of course, is Hollywood. There has been over two dozen cinematic “interpretations” of Alice over the years, from straight star-powered vehicles to over the top (and occasionally scandalous) romps. Carroll’s own notorious reputation, along with the backstory on how and why these books were written, has also marred many an attempt to update the source. Still, if Burton was really the visionary he claims, he would have chucked the entire good vs. evil battle royale dynamic and tried something truly inventive, like renowned writer Dennis Potter did when he created his 1985 masterpiece, Dreamchild.
Never heard of it? It’s not surprising. This British drama received a limited theatrical release during its initial run (even though it featured amazing creature F/X work by the Jim Henson studios) and then disappeared into a kind of home video Hell. There was a VHS version, and a laserdisc, but that’s it. As far as this critic can tell, it has never seen a legitimate release on DVD, nor is it likely to. While Potter is perhaps best known for such mini-series masterworks as The Singing Detective, Pennies from Heaven, and Karaoke, Dreamchild stands as one of his most insightful works - and one of his most unfairly overlooked.
The story is told from two differing perspectives. This first comes from an aging Alice - no, not the character from the book, but the little girl who inspired the author. In America to receive an honorary degree, the elderly Ms. Hargreaves flashes back to her first meeting with the Rev. Charles Dodgson (pseudonym Carroll’s true nom de plume) and how his surreal story about rabbits, caterpillars, and jabberwockys actually harbored his hidden psychological desires for young girls. As director Gavin Miller switches between Depression-era New York, the English countryside from seven decades before, and a grimy and disturbing vision of Wonderland, we discover Dodgson’s complicated motives and his naïve affections for his subject.
But this is not a story of pedophilia, though such unsavory elements are clearly here acting as subtext. Instead, Dreamchild is just that - the story of the youth who made an old man swoon, and the unusual manner in which he responded with his intentions. Because Potter clearly wanted to show Dodgson as a romantic, his “love” of Alice is pictured as pure. It’s only when the “character” enters the soiled and sullied version of the famed fantasy land do we sense something unsettling is going on. If Burton was indeed the risk taker everyone claims, he’s get rid of the popcorn concepts surrounding his take and try something as far-thinking as Potter.
Or perhaps he should have indulged his ever-present dark side completely and gone with an adaptation of the wonderful (and quite disturbing) video game American McGee’s Alice. Talk about macabre - the 2000 title starts with our heroine’s house burning down, killing her family. Depressed, Alice attempts suicide and ends up in an asylum. There, the White Rabbit arrives to ask for help. Apparently, Wonderland has gone gangrenous, the Queen of Hearts turning it into her own private horror film. Entering with a skeletal Cheshire Cat as her guide and a bevy of Quake/Duke Nuke’em style weapons to choose from, Alice goes on a slice and dice rampage through a gruesome realm filled with such unnerving areas as the Vale of Tears and The Cave of the Oracle.
Okay - so this is not Carroll’s Alice, but then again, no one is asking for Burton to recreate John Tenniel frame for frame (don’t recognize the name? Look it up!). But for someone who has often inserted the morbid and the menacing into his films, American McGee’s interpretation seems perfect. After all, Burton excels within the often complex domain of action-adventure and for anyone who’s played the game (as I have), Alice is nothing short of exciting. Granted, a spectacular story pitting one Wonderland court against another in a massive 3D battle for domination sounds spiffy as well. Let to his own devices, however, Burton appears to have come up short - at least for now.
As with any advance look, final judgment will have to be reserved until later on in the publicity seeking process. One can easily envision a far more detailed trailer coming out around Thanksgiving, more of the storyline and set-up explained and highlighted. Burton will also have months to tweak and reconfigure his film should the initial focus group screening produce less than promising results. And let’s not forget the masterminds behind the movie. The House of Mouse has been making commercial silk purses out of cinematic sows ears for years now. Just ask Miley, The Jonas Brothers, and a certain Beverly Hills Chihuahua. If first impressions mean anything, Burton has clearly won over geek nation - for now. Too bad he wasn’t bolder in his interpretation.