Not So Frabjous

'Alice in Wonderland' poster showing Alice under a giant toadstool, White Rabbit in front of her, long table set for tea behind

When I first saw the poster below left in a movie theater last summer, my reaction
was the same as many other folks’:

'Alice in Wonderland' poster with close-up look at the garishly made up and wide-eyed face of the Mad Hatter sporting a tall hat 'Alice in Wonderland' poster showing the Mad Hatter strolling jauntily under giant toadstools

“Is that Madonna?”

As it turned out, of course, I was looking at Tim Burton’s longtime collaborator
Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. But something about the uneasy gap-toothed smile forged an eerie resemblance between the pair.

I was surprised that early posters didn’t show Alice herself, falling down the rabbit
hole or surrounded by the lushness of Wonderland as in the far superior one-sheet atop this post, rather than Depp’s Hatter in close-up — not only because the actor (otherwise a presumed selling point) is so unrecognizable but because his dazed, dyspeptic expression isn’t exactly what I consider inviting.

Little did I know at the time how closely that expression would reflect the way I felt as the movie unfolded.

Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is, plainly put, terrible. It’s a fairly generic, dark action
fantasy that, based on their trailers at least, could easily be one of the movie adaptations I’ve never seen of videogames I’ve never played. And, oh yeah, it’s not actually what you think of when you think of Alice in Wonderland but, potential yet worthwhile spoiler alert, a sequel.

The other day I expressed my great love of the Alice books, so you might question whether I’m simply dismissing out of hand liberties taken with the source material. Except that in the same post I praised the novels’ adaptability to other media in forms both faithful and merely figurative. True, I was confused by how the film opens; surely Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton didn’t mean for that Charles to be Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, a.k.a. Lewis Carroll — no, indeed, he’s Charles Kingsleigh, and his daughter is Alice Kingsleigh... but surely they knew that Alice dreamt of Wonderland (if after all it was a dream) by the banks of a river at her sister’s side, not in bed attended by her father. When the backstory further unfolded, I accepted it, plodding as it was, in the name of setting up why Alice is 19 years old in the film’s present of 1871 instead of a decade younger, although really if you’re changing the opening your intention is probably to get to Wonderland as quickly as possible rather than make viewers sit through a boring, predictable, uncomfortable sequence showing at length Alice’s unsuitability to the boring, predictable, uncomfortable life planned for her.

I felt a thrill when voices offscreen, spying upon Alice’s misfortunes at the bottom of
the rabbit hole, suggested that our Ms. Kingsley had been here before, but nothing good came from this wrinkle. Only weakly echoing the original narrative, Burton and Woolverton tried to weave new mythology not even suggested in the books, as with the shoehorning of Alice into the poem “Jabberwocky” — we’re told that on the coming Frabjous Day she is destined to confront the titular creature with the fate of the realm hanging in the balance. And whereas Carroll imposed certain structures on the Alice books — for instance, Through the Looking-Glass is broadly patterned after a chess game — they diluted the delicious whimsy of the stories into a mundane hero’s journey. Hatter, the March Hare, the Dormouse, the Red and White Queens, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, and the White Rabbit are given names. All this and another distasteful reveal smack of dismissing the original story as a little girl’s childish fantasy, and while even the brightest entries in Burton’s oeuvre have forbidding undercurrents I’d never have suspected him of being anti-imagination.

My viewing companions were similarly unimpressed, although most weren’t as taken aback as I was at the sheer ordinariness of it all. The move has a 53% rating at Rotten Tomatoes (among “top critics” it’s 61%, edging into “fresh” territory) and a coincidental score of 53 at Metacritic. We saw the 2D version, by the way, since I was anticipating a bright, colorful Wonderland and didn’t want the effect compromised by cumbersome extra glasses in service of a gimmick that generally impedes my enjoyment of what’s onscreen.

It’s a shame that, for me, a new Tim Burton film has ceased to be a must-see event.
Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure was a total delight before Burton’s name meant anything to anyone; Beetlejuice was brilliant, sending me and many others to the video store in search of his short films as profiles of him began to appear in the entertainment press. Batman and Batman Returns were wildly uneven but visual treats that at least (mostly) presented the Dark Knight in a gothic fashion properly reflecting his contemporary comic-book incarnation to the world at large. After the acclaimed Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood, however, Mars Attacks! was a bizarre comedown — it still had its moments, but they probably totaled about five minutes. After that, I only saw most Tim Burton movies, not all of them, albeit more as a function of having to be choosier when I was able to get to the theater; while I did not regret Big Fish, Planet of the Apes represented time and money ill spent. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was the main reason why I approached Wonderland with trepidation, as I enjoyed much about the film but hated Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka; those of you who, like I, found the Oprah clip in that film supremely jarring should brace yourself for a brief breakdance of sorts late in Alice, off-putting less for the anachronism of its synth blast than the innate tackiness of same, not to mention that it sort-of blows a running joke by showing us what’s better left to the imagination.

There are bright spots in this Wonderland, but not nearly enough for it to live up to that title or earn it as a worthy gloss on the Carroll books. Mia Wasikowska gives an appealing performance as the Alice she was hired to play. I would have enjoyed seeing Helena Bohnam Carter’s take on the Red Queen / Queen of Hearts in a faithful adaptation of Through the Looking-Glass or Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — in Burton’s movie, as in Disney’s familiar animated Alice and other adaptations, the queens are conflated into one character. The Dormouse’s total makeover as a sassy swashbuckling gal was actually a real standout. And even Anne Hathaway’s ridiculously ethereal White Queen, if a bit too over-the-top, entertainingly exaggerated the royal mien she mastered under Julie Andrews in The Princess Diaries.

Perhaps, with the significant exception of screenwriter Woolverton, the women of Wonderland are blameless and it was the men who messed up this movie. Except that Depp isn’t quite bad as the Hatter, given the utter reinvention of the character, save for the unseemly intimation that he fancies Alice; nor are the similarly chameleonic Crispin Glover as the Knave of Hearts or the impressive voice cast, which includes Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, and Christopher Lee. No, the fault lies at the director’s feet, and I charge Burton with stealing Carroll’s tartness.

Movie posters © 2009 Disney Enterprises.

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  1. Great review, Blam! Though, I must say it bums me out. I really had high hopes for it and you had almost convinced me to save my money until you mentioned that Alan Rickman's voice is in it.

    Every time I saw that Depp poster, I thought "They could have saved a lot of money with make-up and just hired Elijah Wood."

  2. Thanks for the review, Blam! I haven't seen it yet, but I do want to. I think I'll wait for a cheap Tuesday to see it though - most reviews have been lukewarm at best...such a disappointment! I'm glad you like Big Fish though - it's one of my all-time favourites!

  3. I am going to see the movie this Saturday, in 3D. You are not the first person I've heard from that expressed disappointment; however, I'm still going to give it a go.

    I thought it was Elijah Wood the first time I saw the poster. Then someone told me it was JD, and I didn't believe them. I had to MIDB it to believe it.

  4. Hey, Blam! I just noticed the Hatter sitting at the table in the first poster. This is funny because it forms a triptych with the third poster you showed (not the close-up of Depp, the other one) of the Hatter walking along, and another poster that you didn't include. But the last poster in the triptych doesn't have the Hatter, which bugs me. Anyway, I wish the movie had been as good as the posters, but Wonderland didn't actually look anything like that, so false advertising.

  5. I was a little bit scared of watching the movie, and now I really have no desire to see it. Ugh. Silly people.