Alice in Wonderland
Writers: Linda Woolverton (Screenplay).
Inspired by the books "Alice's Adventures in
Year of Release: 2010
To sum up: Oh, Alice, dear where have you been?
“You have a regrettably large
head! I would very much like to hat it!”
Imagine my surprise to learn that Alice was, in truth, based on the classic Lewis Carroll books: “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland” and “Alice Through the Looking Glass”. Oh! That makes more sense. And even though "Alice" has been adapted before, including by Disney himself, it seemed an appropriate subject that could be well served in this era of “anything can be done” visual effects (even though it is yet another remake in this deja vu era of film creativity). But considering that the original subject matter dealt with a child attempting to understand absurdist ideas, explorations of the strange world she’s entered, and, thematically, the maturing of the child’s mind towards the often confusing requirements of adult sensibilities, could any adaptation do the story justice?
Enter Tim Burton, the auteur of the unusual, medium of the macabre, curator of the creepy. From Beetlejuice to Sweeney Todd, few directors have surveyed the surreal, discovered the wonderfully weird, and brought it to life. In short, one only has to take an almost casual glance of any film in Burton's resume to know whose hands and mind were involved. It’s a testament to his creativity that he is able to dabble in the dark, and somehow make it non-threatening or offensive, which has given him the success that he has enjoyed. So it is not a wonder that Burton was tapped to revisit this Wonderland. If anyone was made for this material, it would be him.
Rather than simply remaking the same story, Burton has chosen to set his a few years later, and so, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) has aged to young maturity since her initial adventures in Wonderland. The only recollections she has come to her in dreams, though as the years have gone on, even the dreams have begun to fade. Alice is of marrying age and her mother has seen fit to arrange Alice's engagement to Hamish (Leo Bill), a young suitor in the well connected Ascot family. But, of course, Hamish is a thoroughly vapid young man with no personality, imagination, or humor. And just to make sure we understand that he is unsuitable for Alice, it is ensured that his looks match his personality. Give that boy a banjo and it's Alice in Deliverance.
Alice is dragged to a large party at the family's estate, where the intent is for Hamish to ask for her hand in marriage. It is also made clear to Alice that she is expected to accept. But, throughout the day, and conveniently during the proposal, (which occurs in front of everyone in England it seems; it's a very big party), Alice has been seeing a familiar white rabbit, in a familiar waist-coat, carrying a familiar pocket-watch. Leaving her would be beau on his knee in mid proposal, and creating a situation more awkward than any she could encounter in Wonderland, Alice quickly follows the rabbit, and is again transported to that magical world for another adventure.
Wonderland has undergone an urban renewal since she was last there, with everything wonderfully computer generated and now in wonderful 3-D. Alice, who is convinced that this whole experience is yet another dream, spends her time meeting familiar faces such as Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas); Dormouse (voiced by Barbara Windsor), who, coincidentally, is a mouse; Absolem, the Blue Caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman); and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who turns out to have really been a hatter, once upon a time (Hmm. Never would have guessed). She also meets a few new faces, including the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter); Bayard (voiced by Timothy Spall), a bloodhound who is forced to do the Red Queen's bidding; the beautiful, yet quirky White Queen (Ann Hathaway); and the villainous Stayne, the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), who is in charge of the Red Queen's poker deck army.
The “people” of Wonderland, it turns out, have need of Alice to free them from the rule of the vain, wicked, and cruel Red Queen. Conveniently, this is clearly spelled out on a prophetic scroll which tells of the “one” who will save the kingdom, thus eliminating the need for anyone in the audience to have to wonder what is going to happen in the story.
What is a wonder is that a story set in a universe that is often an artfully crafted cornucopia of visual splendors, many of which invoke a “Gee whiz! That looks cool!” reaction, could at the same time wallow in plot driven mediocrity. Burton found the original stories were a series of random events and was not very interested in it until he was able to construct a story around it, saying in the March 5th issue of "Entertainment Weekly", " I'd never really read the Lewis Carroll books. I knew Alice through music and other illustrators and things. The images were always strong, but the movie versions I'd seen, to me, were always just, like, a little brat wandering around a bunch of weirdos." (Memo to Burton, as with Batman, if you’re not really connecting with the source material...pass).
And so, collaborating with Linda Woolverton and Disney, this is the plot they constructed. And I sat there thinking, Really? That's the most compelling you could come up with? We get the generic “kingdom-in-decay-that-can-only-be-saved-by-the-prophecy-of-the-one-foretold-defeating-the-forces-of-evil” mixed in with the “girl-discovering-her-own-self-empowerment” story. And when the plot is building up to yet another cinematic climactic battle scene, with Alice coming forth looking like Cate Blanchett from Elizabeth: The Golden Age, sad to say, all of this was not enough to keep the interest. With a little more effort something compelling could have been constructed. Instead, we have a wonderfully visual story that fails to rise to greatness because it's mired in a plot that is almost beat for beat predictable.
Another problem is pathos. The “Alice” stories exist in a universe where the people, animals, insects, various kinds of foliage, and the animate playing cards that Alice encounters exist, at most, as caricatures; representative types that this film, in turn, attempts to flesh out. But based on the original stories and the world that Carroll created, is it possible to bring logic to an illogical environment? It's been done in countless children's stories (I mean, come on, who doesn't tear up when Dorothy is saying goodbye to her friends in Oz?), but the attempt to bring three dimensionality to one dimensional creations does not entirely succeed here. Unlike a lot of literature, the absurd nature of the characters of Wonderland were never meant to be relatable, making the idea of forming relationships and emotional attachments all the more difficult. Part of the problem is the development of the characters themselves.
As Alice, Mia Wasikowska served the part well, being just enough of a quirky outsider to the stiff upper Brit Victorian society. That the film goes too far too quickly in her becoming a self-empowered young woman, is pointing out the obvious, especially with the neatly tied up ending. But there is a certain charm to the young Miss Wasikowska. She brings a pleasing honesty to her persona; displaying just enough distracted discomfort with the real world to remind us of the younger Alice with whom we are all familiar, but tempered with enough young maturity that she doesn't come off as a lunatic. She's resistant without being rude, innocent but not immature, and brings sincere compassion, even when the story doesn't have enough development to entail it.
Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter is not really mad, just a bit sad. He's a devalued hat-maker cast to the fringes by the Red Queen. And though the relationship that he and Alice share is supposed to imply depth, again, the film doesn't provide enough sharing or bonding to make that depth seem real. That being said, Depp has crafted yet another thoroughly watchable character. But I have to admit that I was seeing other creations creep into his performance. “You're forgetting one thing, mate. I'm Captain Mad Hatter.”
The same goes with Alice's relationship with Absolem, the caterpillar, who, amazingly, is permitted to smoke (which, if I understand the current Hollywood climate, should have garnered the film an R rating). Alice reacts to him as a sageful teacher that she grown to respect and trust even though she has no recollection of their previous meeting, and spends, at most, ten minutes of screen time with him.
And even the White Queen, played with a creepy fastidiousness by Anne Hathaway, almost feels like a cameo. Burton says the Queen's development was influenced by famous British cooking hostess, Nigella Lawson, though I think there were other inspirations as well (see picture at the top of the page). Interestingly, her interaction with Alice amounts to, almost literally, time in a kitchen. It took Hathaway only two weeks to film her scenes and that should be a pretty good hint as to the amount of depth her character has.
The only exception is the dog, Bayard, because it is an inescapable universal law that people, audiences and film characters alike, will instantly love and bond with any dog when they see them (We'll ignore “Cujo” in that argument).
All of these relationships needed more there there. Sadly, due to the lack of actual development, they all seem functional and ultimately emotionally uninvolving. The attempt to develop pathos fails and only serves to accentuate an already thin plot, and those are the chief failings of the film. They interfered with the visual feast.
But I must say, what a visual feast! Every inch of Wonderland is full of splendiforous details. It is clear that great care was taken to provide a thoroughly unique environment. From the enlarged, sympathetically exotic eyes of Depp's Hatter down to the simplest leaves on the talking roses, Wonderland for the first time, comes the closest it ever has to being a real place, fulfilling the dreams of those who wanted to see it properly presented with real actors. So, if one is interested in eye candy, this film is full of it.
It must also be noted that the film boasts a wonderful score by Burton's "go to" composer, Danny Elfman. Elfman reaches beyond himself, moves beyond his traditional cues, and creates a score of enchanting complexity. His "Alice's Theme" alone, with it's driving strings and questing choir accompaniment, is an instant classic; an ear worm that will take hours to get out of your head.
This is a could-have-been film. It could have been topical. It could have been exploratory. It could have been adaptively faithful. It could have been great. It should have been better.
(2010. Reviewed by Frederick Holbrook)