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Because Poe wrote on both?

Street mural in Valparaiso, Chile

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Directed by Tim Burton

Mocking Tim Burton for his now perfunctory touches like the crooked tree branch silhouettes, sallow-faced heroines and Depp’s electrified hair is like mocking the latest Wes Anderson or Christopher Guest film, or the latest Pacino or De Niro performance, for demonstrating the law of diminishing returns.  Yes, all of the above have a shtick, ergo they have entered the mainstream.  But all seem well aware of it.  What they are counting on, I assume, is that we like the shtick.  Just as with a new Kate Hudson rom-com, we know exactly what we are getting, and will therefore-or-regardless still want to see it.

So it is not a well-kept secret that Burton is out of ideas.  I had a fairly good picture of what Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland would look like, just as I have a fairly good picture of what, in a parallel universe, Baz Luhrmann’s Alice in Wonderland might look like.  And, like most of the film-going public, I therefore-or-regardless still wanted to see it. (Though if I had my choice of parallel universes, we’d all have seen Guillermo del Toro’s Alice in Wonderland instead.)

No, Burton’s problem here, as with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, is his choice of source material.  Burton’s pop-macabre formula is superficial at best; but with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland, the weirdness lies deeper.  It is not in the characters’ hairstyles or cadences, but in the narrative itself.  The real source of wonder in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is how profoundly the film just does not get it.  It is an outlandish, had-Burton-even-heard-of-the-(not unfamous, in fact wildly popular)-books-before-filming type of not get it.

The story in Burton’s film is a familiar one, albeit for all the wrong reasons.  Linda Woolverton’s screenplay “re-imagines” a 19 year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska), who narrowly escapes betrothal to a predictably repulsive and pampered aristocrat by following the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) down to “Underland,” a place she had visited in her childhood dreams.  Underland is now under the dictatorship of the tyrannical Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), which has brought about a barren landscape and lack of dancing.

As it turns out, there is a prophecy that Alice will steal a sword and kill a monster (the “Vorpal Sword” and Jabberwocky, respectively), thus returning the rule of Underland to the rightful hands of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the Red Queen’s sweet-natured sister.  Having no recollection of her previous sojourn through Underland, Alice is a reluctant heroine until the friendly inhabitants, including the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the March Hare (voiced by Paul Whitehouse), the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), the Blue Caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman) and Tweedledee and Tweedledum (voiced by Matt Lucas), call upon her to fulfill her heroic destiny.

So clichéd is this plot that it stifles any singularity in the characters themselves, which is ironic considering that the flamboyance of each personality encountered by Alice is what has long attracted readers and audiences, and probably Burton himself, to the material in the first place. While Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway, in their respective roles as the Red Queen and White Queen, provide the film with a few entertaining moments, the other actors are given little purpose and provide little merriment.  Johnny Depp’s benignly harebrained portrayal of the Mad Hatter, reminiscent of The Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, is at least in part to blame for the lack of chemistry between him and Alice, and the audience is left to rely on non-existent recollections from a non-existent prequel to understand the affection between the two that prompts them to become allies.

When Burton, functionally speaking, stole a bunch of names and set ideas from Lewis Carroll and plunked them onto his own derivation of The Chronicles of Narnia or Eragon or whatever, it was not merely the original story that was lost.  There was no moral imperative to be bound to Carroll’s narrative; far better adaptations of Alice in Wonderland have been made with even less adherence to the books, e.g., Terry Gilliam’s Tideland.  What Tim Burton lost was the weirdness itself, and all the prosthetic body parts and colored contacts that Disney money can buy could not restore it.


One response

  1. Exeter

    Well said.

    June 28, 2010 at 12:29 pm

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