Bearing about as much resemblance to its literary source as Electronic Arts’ Dante’s Inferno video game does to the fourteenth century poetry cycle it takes its name from, Tim Burton’s new 3-D version of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland stands as a rather dire portent for things to come. If this is how film studios, particularly Disney, are intent to go about “reimagining” properties out of their back catalogs or the public domain, audiences would be better served to stay home and watch sitcom reruns; there’s less cynicism there.
Carroll’s stories didn’t make sense, not a whit, and that was their appeal. Alice follows a strangely time-obsessed rabbit down a tunnel and into a fantastic world where the laws of reality as she (and readers) understood them didn’t apply. She met curious characters and had curious encounters that wouldn’t even necessarily be called adventures. After it all, Alice seemed not so different, a touch more worldly, perhaps, but not necessarily any wiser. Carroll — a mathematician with a trickster’s heart — was less interested in teaching lessons (Victorian England already had a surfeit of moralizing storytelling) packed the stories with Catch-22 logic loops and nonsensical rhymes and puzzles, the sort of thing that appeals to precocious children and immature adults alike.
Now, normally, that target demographic is exactly who the films of Tim Burton are meant to appeal to, what with his patented mix of innocent whimsy and gothic obsessions. While Burton’s films were never exactly verbose or laden with quizzical conundrums, there was a definite affinity between their off-kilter visions and Carroll’s fantasies. What’s shocking, then, about Alice in Wonderland, is just how woefully conventional it all is.
Baldly lifting a framing device from Wizard of Oz (to the point where one expects Alice to say to the Mad Hatter, “I think I’ll miss you most of all”), Burton’s film opens in some undifferentiated nineteenth-century England. His Alice is not a bored little girl but a bored twenty-year-old who rebels against high society’s and family’s strictures (marrying a goofy guy she doesn’t like, wearing corsets) in perfectly ordinary little ways. Even though the English upper class has famously cultivated the eccentrics in its ranks, Burton’s film would have us believe that this pallid young woman with the occasional strange dream presents a jaw-dropping challenge to proper society.
Once Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole, things don’t get much more interesting. She encounters a scrambled, Cliff Note’s version of Carroll’s book and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, all to little impact. As Alice, the Australian actress Mia Wasikowska brings little to her encounters with Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) or the other fantastic creatures who keep wondering if she’s “the right Alice.” As the voices of, respectively, the Cheshire Cat and the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman impart a semblance of netherworld impishness to their lines, but it’s mostly lost on the affectless Wasikowska, who registers neither fright, bafflement, or delight.
The trademark Burton look is everywhere one looks, from the curlicue trees with their malevolent branches to the dark-toned pallet, lustrous red and rich purple shades predominating; and of course there’s Johnny Depp. As the Mad Hatter, Depp – with his frizzled hair, circus wardrobe, pinned-open eyes, and dial-an-accent voice – is clearly meant to be the master of ceremonies.
But here’s the conundrum.
While Depp’s Mad Hatter is peevish and prone to making nonsensical remarks, he’s far from mad. In fact, every piece of information revealed about the Mad Hatter in this over-plotted, over-explained film shows that he is in fact, quite logical and not mad at all. Even the Red Queen, with her impulses for decapitating most anybody within sound of her screeching, turns out to have a reason for acting the way she does.
Linda Woolverton’s script is lousy with this tendency. Intent on foisting order upon Carroll’s puzzle-mad bedlam, the story leaves precious little unaccounted for. In doing so, the filmmakers suck just about all sense of anarchy, danger, and wonder out of this world. Even though the reimagining of the Red Queen and White Queen as being literally at war allows Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway, respectively, to lay on the ham (providing the film’s best moments) it also uncomfortably militarizes the story much as Disney transformed the Narnia tales into adolescent war movies.
Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is no fantasy, it’s a rote exercise in computer animation, a second-hand empowerment drama where everything makes perfectly dreary sense in the end.