One would think that Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland would be tailor made for a film maker of Tim Burton’s prodigious talents. The director of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd, whose dark flights of fancy have captivated us for nearly three decades, would seem a natural choice to reproduce the quirky humor and shifting time sequences of Alice on film.
But Alice has defeated plenty of other directors who have sought to capture the book’s mystery and whimsy and Burton is only the latest to crash and burn in the attempt.
Part of the problem is that his new film attempts both a sequel and a reworking of the storyline in an effort to offer the audience something entirely new, yet ends up producing neither effectively.
In order to produce an original take on Alice, Burton and his screenwriter Linda Woolverton, combine Alice in Wonderland with Carroll’s own sequel to that book, Through the Looking Glass and introduce a denouement that has sweet little Alice transformed into a Lord of the Rings-like warrior, dragooned into a fight to the death with the dreaded Jabberwocky.
In the process it presents us not with the original precocious six-year- old Alice, but an eighteen-year-old version of the heroine, who, to her dismay, is being shunted into a hasty marriage to a boor.
We meet this older version at her Victorian engagement party, which has been unsuspectingly organized in her honor. But just as her dour intended asks publicly for her hand, she is distracted by the waist-coated white rabbit, who scurries by the gazebo where the betrothal is about to take place. She abruptly drops everything, including her fiancee’s hand, to pursue the bounding rodent down the rabbit hole. As is to be expected, she tumbles into an endless tunnel, crashing into the familiar room in which she either grows too tall to enter the door to Wonderland or else becomes too small to reach the key.
After figuring it out, just as her earlier incarnation had done, Alice is free to wander the kingdom which has now inexplicably changed its name from Wonderland to Underland, even if many of her old friends are still roaming its forests and fields.
Surprisingly, Alice has no recollection of her earlier visit or of the manic characters she once encountered there. And while she does meet up with the Blue Caterpillar, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Cheshire Cat, the March Hare and of course the Mad Hatter and they all persistently remind her of her earlier visit, her memory, until much later, remains unjogged.
But Wonderland has transformed in the intervening 12 years since her last journey and has endured an environmental degradation through war, pestilence and, one might think, the Underland version of global warming.
From thereon the plot of Alice In Wonderland takes us on a wayward journey to the Red Queen’s castle, but in truth, appears pretty uncertain of where it is really heading. In the process we encounter a number of highlights from both books but miss some of Carroll’s most indelibly drawn characters and scenes. These include the White Knight, the Red King, Humpty Dumpty, the Lion and the Unicorn, the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle. Sadly lost or missing in action are the scenes of the Caucus Race, the Lobster Quadrille and the trial of the Knave of Hearts.
The acting, save for some wonderful work from Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, is often stilted. Johnny Depp, as the Mad Hatter, never seems to really commit himself to the role and often slips into an Scottish brogue that is all but incomprehensible. He is by turns a wispy-voiced popinjay and at other times a tragedian, mooning over lost opportunity. The over application of makeup seems strangely apposite for a film that is all color and no substance. His breakdance at the end of the movie, with the introduction of a pounding disco beat, is one of the more unsettling modern motifs slapped onto a film that presents itself, for the most part, as Victorian Gothic.
Anne Hathaway is out of place and out of her depth as the White Queen and her mannerisms are unconvincing. Matt Lucas is suitably villainous as the Red Queen’s henchman but offers nothing particularly original nor memorable.
One of the great disappointments is the failure to connect the characters in the opening scenes of Alice’s engagement party, to the characters she later encounters in Wonderland. This, after all, was one of the special delights of the Carroll book, where known political and local personalities would appear in the guise of Wonderland characters (see, for instance, the Lion and the Unicorn as the battling personalities of Disraeli and Gladstone in Through the Looking Glass). Burton misses the opportunity to have the imperious mother-in-law appear later as the Red Queen; the more sympathetic and solicitous father- in-law portrayed as the Red King (or the King of Hearts) and the Tweedledum and Tweedledee brothers ( who are marvelous CGI characters in Underland) make an earlier appearance as stodgy twins at the engagement party.
Another disappointment is the failure to tell much of the original story of the first Alice in Wonderland through Alice’s reminiscences, experiences alluded to by the Underland characters, but rarely given any cinematic expression. As Alice finally connects her many dreams over the intervening years with her current situation, we are only privy to a 30 second flashback of her six-year-old self painting white flowers red, attending an earlier Mad Tea Party and an encounter with the blue caterpillar.
But these fleeting moments only serve to leave the viewer with the unsettling impression that Burton in fact earlier made an entirely different film, one more faithful to Carroll’s original vision, only to trash it in favor of this mishmash of themes and plot lines.
I have always thought that it takes an act of presumption to write a sequel to a masterwork of world literature, years after the author died. It also seems something of conceit to rewrite the story line completely, leaving only ghostly smatterings of the original story as if a license had been given to reconstruct a tale that had become either too tired or too outdated for modern tastes.
But Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is neither tired nor outdated and lives on as one of the most compelling literary works of imagination ever set to paper. Burton’s attempts to rewrite it ends up as a misconceived mess that not only does discredit to a great work of fiction, but compromises his own well honed skills as a film maker and storyteller.