Uffish, But Not Frumious
2010 // USA // Tim Burton // March 5, 2010 // 3D Digital Theatrical Projection (AMC West Olive)
C+ - Any film treatment of Lewis Carroll's Alice books must overcome a conspicuous stumbling block: How does one adapt a pair of Victorian nursery stories, consisting mainly of a succession of absurdist dialogues, into engaging cinema? A literalist, scene-by-scene recreation of the Alice tales would make for an unconventional film, but also a wearisome and distinctly un-cinematic experience. Given his gothic fairy-tale sensibilities and enduring fascination with outcasts defined by their hyperbolic physical and emotional qualities, Tim Burton would seem a comfortable fit for Carroll's brand of amusing dementia. However, the director's track record with big-budget adaptations has been woefully mixed, with Exhibit A in the negative column being his misguided, excruciating Planet of the Apes remake. Happily, Alice in Wonderland, while hardly the rich, cerebral adaptation that Carroll's works deserve, proves to be a solid little adventure tale that traipses through a deliciously gratifying Burton-esque landscape. In Wonderland, the director discovers an expansive sandbox for the funhouse impulses he favors in his most inventive works. Unfortunately, Alice never remotely achieves the madcap vigor of Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Beetle Juice, or Batman Returns (all exemplars of Burton's vision at its most fiendish and uninhibited). The story is little more than a boilerplate Hero's Journey, but coiled within are both the sensory splendors we expect from Burton the Fabulist, as well as some welcome jottings of subversion.
Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton--whose résumé is long on toy-themed kiddie television, but, crucially, also features Mulan--sidestep the fundamental dilemma of an Alice's Adventures in Wonderland adaptation with a decidedly prosaic approach. Ostensibly, the film is a sequel to Through the Looking-Glass, wherein a nineteen-year-old Alice returns to a Wonderland she no longer remembers. In practice, the film has little to do with Carroll's stories, either in form or in tone. Woolverton employs the source material in the service of a PG-rated fantasy adventure filled with monsters, prophecies, escapes, relics, and epic battles. The whole concept--Wonderland as a wackier, gentler Lord of the Rings knockoff--is vaguely heretical, but Burton and Woolverton at least commit to this angle with full-throated enthusiasm. Channeling a family-friendly Alan Moore, the film re-imagines the characters, creatures, and settings of both Alice stories (and the imagery of Disney's 1951 animated feature) into a monomythical context, complete with facile messaging for a contemporary tween audience. One can only imagine how appalled Carroll purists will be at the sight of a vorpal sword-wielding Alice astride a Bandersnatch.
This Alice (Mia Wasikowska) has the smoky eyes and distracted manner of the little girl from the books, and also a liberated, anachronistic disdain for Victorian society. Her widowed mother expects her to marry a comically repugnant aristocrat, but, true to form, Alice follows the White Rabbit down a familiar hole during her own engagement party. In the years since Alice's last visit, Underland (which a young Alice misheard as "Wonderland") has fallen almost wholly into the power of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).Â In a bit of license that has become unfortunately endemic to Alice adaptations, the Queen is an amalgam of Wonderland's Queen of Hearts and Looking-Glass' Red Queen, boasting the most monstrous traits of both. With the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) serving as the Queen's dread knight and the Jabberwocky at her command, the Underland residents have been variously jailed, enslaved, and cowed into submission. Although Alice remembers nothing of her last visit, the locals--including an oddly melancholy Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp)--are convinced she is the foretold champion of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and the hero who will slay the Jabberwocky and liberate their world.
This approach to Carroll's work makes for an accessible story, but unfortunately also a rather bland one, and it brings with it all the usual problems that bedevil fantasy adventure films. The template is dreadfully familiar at this point, and treading the same path as countless other entries in the genre demands that a film-maker offer some refreshing angle. The use of the Wonderland characters and locales in unconventional ways proves a compelling hook, as is the script's unabashed affection for Carroll portmanteau, but these are inadequate to energize the film's otherwise rote fantasy parameters. Alice also suffers from an often confused middle act, which mumbles through vital character moments and features some abrupt, distracting shifts in scene and tone.
While the film's story is thoroughly unremarkable, the look of the thing is something to behold. Burton tinges his vision of Wonderland with characteristic gloom, transforming the proto-psychedelic hues of Disney's animated adaptation into a carnival palette that is alternately plush, bruised, and faded. Playing card and chess motifs manifest themselves throughout the castles of the Red and White Queens, respectively, and the Underland wilds have the fitting look of Victorian garden gone to thistle and briar. John Tenniel's iconic illustrations for the books are unmistakably an influence on Robert Stromberg's production design, but that influence is deftly employed and never registers as an oppressive presence. Burton teases out the mythical and oneiric elements of the setting while keeping the overly precious nineteenth-century qualities in check.Â When the familiar black shape of the Jabberwocky appears with its flaming purple breath, it vibrates storybook fears long dormant. The film employs 3-D in a consciously showy manner, with abundant objects lunging and soaring out towards the viewer. While gimmicky and slight compared to the immersive worlds of Coraline or Avatar, the 3-D effects suit Burton's aesthetic, which is part haunted house and part pop-up book.
Despite the distressingly routine story and the director's often clumsy handling of it, Burton discovers all sorts of personal affinities in his Alice, which is all the more remarkable given the work-for-hire odor that clings to the film. Consistent with the source material, Wonderland's absurdism is portrayed as a proxy for the real world's madness, with Burton paying particular heed to notions of social determinism and the connection between identity and action. Alice chafes under the strictures of late 1800's England, but while her objections are obliviously modern, they are also the keenly felt doubts of a willful individual who loathes being lectured on what is possible, permissible, and reasonable. The adult Alice's plunge into Underland coincides with her mounting dread at the proper (sexual) life that is rushing towards her, and her adventures represent a honing of her directionless anxiety into a tangible, real-world ambition. Woolverton ups the ante on the film's welcome gender reversal by recasting the Mad Hatter as the Princess to Alice's Hero, narratively speaking. Depp spends much of the film as the passive object of an Alice rescue mission, and his Hatter's own sorrowful, absent-minded searching--for a purpose, an answer, and an occasion worthy of a truly frabjous dance--mirrors the heroine's own quest to define herself on her own terms. With The Princess and the Frog's overdue corrective to the company's commercial mythmaking, and now Alice in Wonderland's sly tweaking of conventional gender-based fantasy tropes, Disney appears to be on a modest roll.