Not So Frabjous
When I first saw the poster below left in a movie theater last summer, my reaction
was the same as many other folks':
"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 generic, dark action
fantasy that, at least based on their trailers, could just as easily be one of the big-screen adaptations I've never seen of videogames I've never played. And, oh yeah, it's not actually what you think of as 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 that same post I praised the books' adaptability to other media in forms both faithful and merely figurative. True, I was quite confused by the movie's opening scenes; 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 Kingsley, and his daughter is Alice Kingsley, but surely the filmmakers knew that young 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 was 19 years old in the film's present day rather than a decade younger, although really if you're cutting the original's opening you probably want to do so in the name of getting to Wonderland as quickly as possible rather than making viewers sit through a boring, predictable, uncomfortable sequence showing at unnecessary 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 Ms. Kingsley had been here before, but nothing good came from this twist. While only weakly echoing the original narrative, Burton tried to weave new mythology not even suggested in the books, as with the shoehorning of Alice into the poem "Jabberwocky" — on the coming Frabjous Day, we are told, Alice is destined to confront the titular creature with the fate of the realm hanging in the balance. Carroll imposed certain logical structures upon the Alice books — Through the Looking-Glass is, for instance, broadly patterned after a chess game — but Burton and Woolverton turned the delicious nonsense of the stories into a mundane hero's journey. They gave the Hatter, the March Hare, the Dormouse, the Red and White Queens, the Caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, and the White Rabbit names. All this and another arguably big reveal smacked 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 as 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 movie 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 expecting a bright, colorful Wonderland and didn't want the expected visual treats 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 added up to about five minutes altogether. 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, offputting 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 were bright spots in this Wonderland, but not nearly enough for it to live
up to that title in the generic or earn it as a worthy gloss on the Carroll books. Mia Wasikowska gave 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 two 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 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.
Updated and revised December 2018
Movie posters © 2009 Walt Disney Pictures.
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