Go Ask ‘Alice’: The Meaning of $116 Million


Similar to Shutter Island, the ads have been almost omnipresent for the last eight months. Every time you turned around, a clownish Johnny Depp was admonishing a mini-Alice for being “late” and “naughty”. Tantalizing images of blubbery flesh orbs – aka Tweedledee and Tweedledum – a giant roaring beastie, a Red Queen complete with overinflated noggin, and rabbits everywhere, graced movie and TV screens. For some, the notion of Goth geek director Tim Burton taking on Lewis Carroll’s classic tales of Wonderland and beyond the Looking Glass seemed like a natural. Others crowed at the possibility of a former professional outsider and visionary on auto-pilot. The results actually lie somewhere in the middle. While critics have turned the title into the typical “love/hate” homage to the always lackluster Jan-April movie season, audiences have lined up in droves. Compelled by the comically oppressive hype — and a dimensional marketing stunt – this particular interpretation of the Victorian tale earned a record setting $116 million domestically.

Add in another $94 million worldwide, and Alice in Wonderland looks like a solid hit for the House of Mouse. Indeed, it seems ironic that a studio that could never appreciate the nerdy apprentice animator they hired (Burton worked for Uncle Walt’s corporate conspirators in the ’80s) would now benefit, greatly, from the director’s built in demographic. Toss in the still in its infancy cinematic exploit known as 3D and Disney should be happy. Unlike recent titles, Alice has the watercooler legs to generate continuing buzz, journalistic conversation, and as a result, moolah, for the company’s foreseeable future – and with little competition in the next few weeks, it stands to bank a significant amount of green. Still, what does the financial success mean to the individuals involved, including ones wearing the “genius” caps in the corner of the development Hell boardroom? Some clear conclusions can be drawn, starting with the impact on the studio that now seems crazy like a fox:

The Studio


For Disney, this win is sweet. There’s been so much talk about handpicking Burton and his man-muse Depp (all in an attempt to earn some concerted commercial goodwill from both), about detouring from the original Alice (which the studio celebrated with their classic ’50 cartoon classic), and for pushing the publicity machine into obnoxious overdrive. Now, they can sit back and bask in the glow of all those international dollars. As they have with most of their live action efforts of late, The Mansion that Mickey Built has clearly believed in hedging their bets, whether it be with stars, subject matter, or supposed audience. In this case, the company got all parts of the production right – even with the recent rift regarding a smaller theater-to-DVD turnaround schedule.

The Source

Lewis Carroll and the Original Alice in Wonderland

Apparently, it’s foolproof. It can be adapted into animation, surreal stop motion fantasy (as in Alice by Jan Svankmajer), a prickly post-modern TV reimagining, and now, a grrrl power proto-feminist screed. It would be nice to see someone actually tackle the true spirit of Carroll’s lunatic logic game and give us a glorious, epic literal translation, but until then, we will have to wade through the bevy of good (The Matrix) and bad (ever seen the musical porn version…yeesh!) interpretations. At least this version avoided the problem with previous attempts at bringing Alice to life – the tendency to turn it into the Love Boat, complete with far too numerous celebrity cameos.

The Writer

Linda Woolverton

Somehow, you get the impression that once Burton got his hands on this screenplay, he severely undermined Woolverton’s own “vision”. This is the woman responsible for the magnificent Beauty and the Beast, and who had a hand in the equally electric Lion King. Clearly, she can create something with substantial emotional heft and fairytale finesse. But during the faded, washed out opening sequence, where Alice avoids the social proprieties of the age, Burton appears sold on getting to the good stuff and avoiding the character context. Perhaps that’s why our heroine feels so flat. Still, with her sole name on the credits, Woolverton will see her commercial cache increase around the industry. Where she will take such a reputation remains to be seen.

The Director

Tim Burton

No one has ridden a more arc career rollercoaster than Tim Burton. His first three films were huge hits, but then quickly after his Batman sequel, his stock plummeted. It took an odd trifecta of Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and Sweeny Todd to reestablish his bankability – and even then, few wondered if the filmmaker could continue to translate his wacky vision to a world outside of Messageboard Nation. The answer is now clearly “Hell YES! ” One things for sure – Burton will be able to make any movie he wants right now…as long as he brings Depp along for the ride. All signs point to the long rumored Dark Shadows remake, though it would be nice to see him branch out into something beyond his creative comfort zone for once.

The Stars

Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Mia Wasikowska

Big John continues to dominate the box office. Until he messes up movie-wise, or does something to get TMZ in a tizzy, he will remain that most important of studio assets – the international movie star. Like Will Smith, he can generate substantial returns both here and abroad. Similarly, as long as Tim Burton is making movies – and the couple remains together – the director’s baby mama will have a job. She’s been in all of his recent films (and one imagines she’s already pouring over Shadows looking for a plumb part). That just leaves the lead, a remarkable young Australian actress who, frankly, has done better work elsewhere. Alice is really not the core of her own story in this update, so it’s hard to see how Waikowska translates this success into something more substantial. Looks like a few years in indie exile before she truly breaks big.

The Gimmick


It’s become the billion dollar mantra for many movie studios – pick a franchise, an upcoming film, or a possible project, and somewhere you will see the “3D” tag attached. Everyone is going multidimensional, from upcoming efforts like Clash of the Titans, to Saw, to the next Toy Story film. Many see it as the saving grace of a flailing industry (the inflated ticket prices don’t hurt either) but unlike Avatar, which specifically built its vision to incorporate the cutting edge of the technology, many are simply tossing it in as a current filmic fad. Alice didn’t really use said expansive abilities all that much. In fact, there were only a few instances where the optical element worked. However, money talks and skepticism walks, so get ready for Tyler Perry’s Madea Breaks a Hip, 3D!

The Franchise

Alice in Wonderland 2???

Yes, the script tries to set up a sequel (the key word – “tries”) and one could easily see these characters cast in a new light for yet another return to ‘Underland’. Still, with the unique convergence of concepts that made it work the first time around, could literal lightning be captured in a bottle twice? Probably not. Still, you know studio heads are already clamoring for a treatment, the better to see what another take on the material will get them. Perhaps, a married-with-children Alice having to rescue her own daughter from the fantasy forces of Wonderland? You heard it here first…