So my friend Amy asked me what i thought of Tim Burton’s ‘Alice’ (in the comments section of ‘Puss In Boots’ – I doubt anyone’s ever claimed that Amy is predictable). I’m not going to tiptoe around spoilers, so let me start by saying that if you plan to see this movie but haven’t yet, do that first before reading on. The rest of us will enjoy a little tea while we wait.
All right, stragglers back from the cinema? Then I’ll begin.
First of all, I’m a big Burton fan (Edward Scissorhands is one of the two movies I use to check my humanity from time to time – if I don’t sniffle at the end, I’ve lost it), but I’m above all an Alice fan. There are two ways to win my heart with an Alice work, by catching the magic of the original story or by extending it in a new way.
Burton, ably assisted by an excellent cast, caught some of the magic. Johnny Depp, as expected, was an excellent Mad Hatter; it’s precisely the kind of oddball character he does better than any other active male actor. Helena Bonham-Carter played the Red Queen with her usual thoroughgoing skill, though her performance lacked a bit of the edge she usually brings to any part, and particular a somewhat demented one. Anne Hathaway was wonderful as the White Queen, a relatively unobtrusive role compared to the garish freakishness of the others, but she imbued it with a memorably creepy flavor – her madness was less obvious than the Red Queen’s but you got the feeling it ran much deeper. Stephen Fry’s voice was a beautiful choice for the Cheshire Cat, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee as voiced by Matt Lucas were absolutely exactly as I’d always heard them.
Linda Woolverton’s screenplay was a rather uninspired bit of business about Alice returning to Wonderland at her surprise engagement party – a surprise to Alice herself, and that was a bit hard to swallow to start with. Girls of that era often weren’t given a lot of choice about whom to marry (most eligible young men being dead or far abroad in the service of Empire) but for that very reason engagements were carefully planned affairs wherein nothing was left to chance or the possibility of derailment by a young girl’s whims of the moment. It’s all very well for odd things to happen in Wonderland, but not in proper society.
Further, Alice’s return to Wonderland is a bit muddled by several factors. One is that she may very well not be the right Alice; she doesn’t remember being there before, at first. Those of us who love Lewis Carroll’s work know full well that Alice’s full name is Alice Liddell, and the protagonist in the film is Alice Kingsleigh. Later in the film she does seem to remember being there before, though, which muddles what the writer was trying to do even further. When you’re writing for a well established fan base you need to respect their knowledge of the subject matter.
More fundamentally, there’s some stuff mixed in from Jabberwocky and remixed to make Alice the hero of that story, with prophecies being foretold on a magical picture scroll akin to Glinda The Good’s Book in the Oz series, though people seem oddly casual about such a powerful device, not bothering to lock it up or anything.
This is wrong on multiple levels. For starters it seems contrary to the confusing and chaotic nature of Wonderland that everyone is tied in to a central prophecy, and all their lives revolve around the same storyline. That’s just not how Wonderland is!
Alice was never central in Wonderland, either. She’s a kid, and the adult creatures around her barely tolerate her, at best instructing her. No one looks to her to save anyone or anything; she’s a nuisance at best and a danger at worst. She certainly is not the vorpal sword swinging beamish boy of Jabberwocky, and not just because she’s a girl. It doesn’t fit.
Naturally the Red Queen has taken over Wonderland; there isn’t an Alice sequel anywhere I’m aware of where she hasn’t, from SyFy’s abysmal mini-series ‘Alice’ (second worst Alice spinoff in history, surpassed in misguided awfulness only by the musical porn version – no I’m not kidding, and that stinker even failed as porn) through the rather clever novels The Looking Glass Wars to the rather brilliant video game treatment American McGee’s Alice.
Unfortunately the basis for the Red Queen’s power is her control of the Jabberwock, which is as in every universe one of the scariest monsters imaginable… and yet the aforementioned magical scroll clearly shows Alice killing it. (The Red Queen even recognizes Alice as the slayer from her tangled mass of hair in the picture, though she unaccountably fails to recognize said hair when presented with Alice in person.)
And so the stage is set for a drearily predictable battle sequence to end the fantasy part of the movie with. Yawn. The Red Queen’s support instantly dissolves, and she’s sent into exile by the White Queen chained to her despicable and unfaithful lover. (The White Queen has taken vows never to kill, but she’s still a vindictive bitch!)
And so the stage is set for Alice to return to her everyday world, where she can in the final five minutes set everybody straight about their misconceptions, spurn the boring proposed fiance, and firmly grasp the helm of her father’s exploratory trading business to universal applause. Double, triple, quadruple yawn, and less plausible than Wonderland itself.
Now, just because I’m spitting on the bad bits right at the end here doesn’t mean I didn’t like the film, it’s just that the worst aspects of it are concentrated there. I actually quite liked it as a whole, and some of the particulars were downright delightful. I’ll likely even buy the DVD when it’s available. But…
But it ain’t Alice, to be honest. The same can be said of, for example, “The Looking Glass Wars” trilogy by Frank Beddor which is very cool and original and can be seen as a distorted mirror image (which is what SyFy were probably going for, but unlike Beddor they screwed it up badly, badly, badly – what I tell you three times is true, folks).
American McGee’s Alice is also somewhat forced to be a warrior type but he made it work by having Alice be working through a horrifyingly distorted Wonderland because she is fighting her own subconscious guilt trip in a mental asylum. It’s a fun and beautiful game.
Burton would have been better off, I feel, telling the actual Alice stories without screwing around trying to be original in the plot, though. His deep original genius with visual imagery, combined with that stellar cast and amazing CGI wizardry, would have created a truly worthy canonical Alice movie. As it was, those elements of genius were rather diluted by an inferior derivative plotline, and it’s a shame, because I don’t think anyone has ever caught the feel of mad Wonderland in a special effects based rendition.
First there were the days when the special effects weren’t up to the job, though this earliest version from 1903 has a real charm to it:
When animation came along it naturally got Disney-fied; they did what they do and took everything frightening and disturbing in it and made it sweet and cute, and that version has a charm of its own but is not what I’d call a genuine Carroll Alice. This is the best thing I’ve seen come out of that:
Special effects get better but often their use can be uninspired, as in the 1999 TV movie, which was technically proficient and faithful to the book but managed to make Wonderland dull, dull, dull. Other directors make films that are as odd or even odder than the original, like Czechoslovakian Jan Svanmajer’s “Neco z Alenky“:
Burton could have made a really good CGI film version, I think; he has the chops to not let the effects overwhelm the story. I do doubt whether it would capture the spirit of the books as well as my absolute favorite film adaptation, which makes no real attempt to actualize the fantasy but nevertheles captures the feel of the books better than any other version I know. Trust me, if you watch only one film version of Alice, this 1966 BBC production
is the one to get (and own):
I understand there are facsimile versions available, and if anyone’s wondering what to get me for my unbirthday… 😉
I do of course have several print volumes of Carroll’s work already. I have a well-loved omnibus with the Tenniel illustrations (plus a few extra by Henry Holiday) which I have owned for decades. I also have Martin Gardner’s The Annotated Alice (and The Annotated Hunting of the Snark), which are full of interesting tidbits – my favorite being that cheesemakers in Cheshire used to mold the tops of their cheese wheels with grinning cat’s faces to scare the mice away, and naturally you ate the teeth last so as to keep those meeces affrighted!
Just this last Christmas I bought myself yet another volume, which textwise is nothing but Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (but not …And through the Looking-Glass). Why buy it again? Because it has such beautiful new illustrations by Robert Ingpen that I fell in love, finding myself rereading the story in the store quite as if it were the first time I ever did.