This is a very, very, very belated post. Shamefully so, in fact. I know I should have written this at the beginning of March, not the end of May. However, I have been exhorted that I ought to post more on this blog to give our readers the content not involving model cars or theology that they crave.
When I heard more than a year ago that Tim Burton would be undertaking an adaption of Alice in Wonderland, I was thrilled. A director who I admired (who was incidentally responsible for a few of my favorite films)… a story that had been dear to my heart since the age of four… Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in roles that might as well have been created just for them… it seemed almost too good to be true!
It was, of course. But more on that in a moment.
Finally, March 5th arrived and I was off to see it at last. By the time I was actually finding a seat in the darkened theater amidst the hordes of Hot Topic clad young adults, I was feeling a little less excited. My anticipation had waned over the months of waiting, and reason had set in.
And by the time the credits were rolling and I was blinking in the bright lobby once more, I was feeling extremely… well, frankly, disappointed. What went wrong? What had happened to the great epic of gothic surrealism that could have been? What had transformed Tim Burton’s latest opus into the display of kiddie flick mediocrity I’d just sat through?
The answer, my friends, is Disney. (Or “Dizz-uny”, as certain members of my family might have put it at one time.) Anyone who knows me is aware that I am hardly a fan of that particular entertainment entity. And I am still annoyed that they managed to ruin yet another story of my childhood.
The great appeal (at least for me) of Lewis Carroll’s original book is the utter, delicious absurdity of the whole thing – a surreal, colorful, dreamlike fantasy peopled by wonderfully original characters, a place where the rules of the ordinary world cease to apply. The witty wordplay, the brilliant poetry, the shifting scenes… even as a little child, I knew it wasn’t like any of my other favorite books. It was a book in which “Which dreamed it all?” was a very legitimate question.
The movie I saw was so very obviously meant to be the latest big Disney cash-cow…. millions of dollars to be made at the box office, not to mention all the merchandise at Walmart and Hot Topic to be sold. And as such, it was very successful. But as a movie and an adaption of Lewis Carroll’s book, it wasn’t.
It was unabashedly unoriginal. The same cliched and familiar plot of every kid’s fantasy film of recent years was once again trotted out and put to use here, complete with the same messages of every Disney film: “Be true to yourself! Search within yourself to find the strength you need for the task at hand! Don’t let others define who you are!” Etc., etc., ad infinitum et ad nauseam.
I was unrealistically hoping for something edgy and unique. I wasn’t expecting it to be quite so boring and oh-so-very-safe. The plot itself bore little or no resemblance to the book, the use of the names and characters being the only real similarity. Alice, as a 17-year-old, finds herself in Wonderland and discovers that it is her destiny as the afore-prophesied Chosen Warrior to free the unhappy inhabitants from tyranny and oppression. Along the way she must make new friends and learn important life-lessons about herself so that she may at last reach her feminist awakening.
I do not exaggerate. It was awful.
All the stock set-pieces were there: the monster to tame, the magic sword to win, the dragon to slay; the talking and sword-wielding mouse, the glowering villain; the unsavory arranged marriage, the execution-that-is-interrupted-in-the-nick-of-time and the corset jokes (Really, Disney? Just because Johnny Depp stars doesn’t mean we want Pirates of the Caribbean all over again!). Alice is of course initially a reluctant hero who must come into her own to complete her destiny. Back at home, she is (improbably) frustrated by the constraints of her prim and misogynistic Victorian society, and dislikes being forced to conform and cave to others’ wishes in matters such as corsets and marriage. Of course, once in Wonderland, she’s still conforming and caving to the wishes of others… a fact that the movie conveniently ignores.
Alice in Wonderland is a full two hours long, but it seems shorter… because little that’s memorable or important happens. It ends with Alice skipping off to do business in Asia with her ex-future-father-in-law, standing at the ship’s prow and gazing off into the horizon. I half expected her to break out into a rousing chorus of “drink up, me hearties, yo HO!” but alas, although fitting, it doesn’t go that far.
“Curiouser and curiouser,” Alice announces… but we don’t believe her. There is nothing curious about the bland story-line she has stepped into.
I don’t mean to pretend that I’m utterly snobby and the movie wasn’t somewhat enjoyable. There were high points. The (entirely CG) Wonderland is very pretty, and the visual design (especially the costumes) is excellently Burton. Johnny Depp is brilliant… but he’s Johnny Depp and that was to be expected. His Mad Hatter is a sensitive and sweet schizophrenic, a very sympathetic fellow with a lovely Scottish accent. Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen is gleefully malevolent. I rather liked the actress that played Alice, myself… her serious and subtle way of delivering lines was nice. Her character was far too bland for her to make much of it though.
All these things were only enough to make the experience tolerable, and not enough to salvage the film. The overall effect was one that made me almost regret the $7.50-plus-tax I’d dumped on it.
In short (well, sort of), Alice in Wonderland needed more Burton, much more Carroll… and a different distributing studio. I’d like to imagine that Tim Burton is dissatisfied and endured a lot of arm-twisting from his studio superiors in the Mouse’s service during the filmmaking process… because otherwise he’s definitely losing his touch.
Now, I admit I’m sort of jaded. Alice was no worse than, say, the Narnia films, and probably better than some movies out there today. And perhaps my expectations were unreasonably high… after all the only kid’s book adaptions I saw last year were Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are and Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, both wonderful films much more to my taste and sensibilities.
But it bothers me a little that movies like those aren’t the norm by any means. Am I the only person who’s very tired of book adaptions like Alice in Wonderland? Disappointment is bitter. But at least next time I’ll be less likely to get my hopes up.