Alice in Wonderland

I know this movie came out a few months ago, but I wanted to get this out anyway…

One of the joys of Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass is reading them with a complete lack of grounding.  You never know what is going to happen next because there are no rules or laws you can count on.  When the Queen of Hearts orders heads to be chopped off, it’s all forgotten so quickly that no one really is ever beheaded.  Or when Alice takes part in a massive chess game, there appear to be no standard rules of play or movement.  (At one point Alice has something like eight consecutive moves and it’s all treated as a matter of course.)  Humpty Dumpty, precariously perched on a wall, knows all the poetry that has been written and all that is yet to be written, but does not realize that the King’s men won’t be able to put him back together again if he should fall. The Duchess’ baby can be a crying brat one minute and suddenly turn into a pig, something which the Cheshire Cat blithely announces he suspected would happen.  There is no story, no structure.  It is just Alice moving from one “curiouser” situation to another.  They are two joyful books celebrating the power of imagination.

But Tim Burton’s new 3-D movie Alice in Wonderland misses the original inspiration widely.  The story is meant to be a sequel of sorts, though to what exactly I’m not clear.  There are so many discrepancies between this movie and any of the books or past movies, that it doesn’t work.  The mythical Jabberwocky, for instance, was just a character in a poem in Alice through the Looking Glass, but here it is a character of major significance.  But if anyone were to say that maybe Burton was ignoring Carroll’s second book then Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum could have never met her.  Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is grown and is on the verge of marrying a foppish lord.  Unable to bear committing to a future with the man, she instead chases a white rabbit down a hole and the entire affair from her childhood begins again.  Only she doesn’t remember everything, long having dismissed it as a dream.  Things are different.  The Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter) is ruling Underland (as they call it) with an iron fist, actually beheading everyone from traitors to pests with the help of the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover).  The White Queen (Anne Hathaway) is exiled and the Red Queen fears an uprising any day.  Luckily for her she has the Jabberwocky, a demonic dragon, keeping her kingdom in check.  But there is a prophecy and Alice is meant to kill the Jabberwocky and free the realm from tyranny.  This is why the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) along with other familiar faces bring Alice back, including Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter.

Underland is about as dreary as the plot.  There isn’t anything here that feels fresh.  I’ve seen this world before in other Burton movies but with a tad less color.  That’s all he did was add splashes of color to his standard look.  Wouldn’t it have made sense to come up with an original art direction for an Alice in Wonderland story?  Or even molded something from Carroll’s original version?  Or from a past film?  Instead he has recycled the same looks he’s been using since Batman.

But that would have all been forgivable if he had done something compelling with the characters and the story.  Burton has taken the familiar characters and their nonsensical world and imposed a standard Hollywood action movie plot on them.  A group of renegades battles a tyrannical leader, striving to save their world from her rule and reinstate the rightful, pure and good ruler.  I know I’ve seen that movie before.  There is no attempt to deal with Carroll’s world on any terms with which he would have been familiar.  Wonderland was so logically disjointed that any attempt at a plot would have fallen apart.  But that hasn’t stopped modern filmmakers from doing just that.  They took an intriguing idea – having Alice revisit Wonderland as an adult – and turned it into standard movie fare.  Lewis Carroll did all the heavy lifting: he created the world, the characters, the situations.  This movie just plugs his creations into a formula that does neither Carroll’s books, nor Tim Burton’s resume, any favors.

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