The danger is too great of thus learning to look at solemn things in a spirit of mockery, and to seek in them opportunities for exercising wit. -Lewis Carroll.
I can’t help feeling that Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson) would be disappointed with director Tim Burton’s take on “Alice in Wonderland. Burton imposes a hackneyed storyline and the worn-out mantra of “be true to yourself on a story beloved for its refreshing and utter nonsense.
Burton admits he “never really felt any real emotional connection to “Alice in Wonderland, because “it was always a girl wandering around from one crazy character to another, as he told Blast Magazine last summer.
By adding what he terms “some framework of emotional grounding in an effort “to try and make ‘Alice’ feel more like a story as opposed to a series of events, Burton inflicts a solemnity that Carroll would have likely taken pleasure in ridiculing.
His heavy-handed coercion of the story to produce a superficial lesson reminiscent of an episode of “Barney feels all the more awkward amid the dazzling universe and characters he conjures.
Perhaps we should blame Disney, the film’s distributor. I would hate to think that Burton, the master of creative mayhem, could be responsible for stuffing Alice into a storyline that feels so chokingly contrived.
Most disappointing, actually, was not Burton’s manipulation of Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, or Underworld as it is here known, although “Alice purists might take issue with the unnatural inflation of The Mad Hatter’s role, or Alice’s 19 years of age.
Most cloying is the depiction of Alice’s rebellion against the styles and mores of Victorian England. The final scene nearly kills the movie.
At the end, she refuses an obviously futile marriage proposal and is subsequently invited by her would-be father-in-law to become an apprentice in her late father’s trading company. Alice’s suggestion that the company extend its reach to China may represent attempted wit, as a tongue-in-cheek reference to that country’s ascendance in international trade, but the whole sequence feels frustratingly more absurd than the magical realm from which Alice has just returned. It reeks of Disney cheese, far more than did the 1951 version supervised by Walt himself.
Nothing against girl power; by all means, show the film to your 10-year-old daughter to prove to her that she can do anything, from slaying jabberwockies to entering fields monopolized by men. But for your own sake, turn off the film when Alice leaves Underworld and avoid the bubble-gum mushiness of history re-imagined.
Carroll might have been pleased with the loving attention to detail that exemplified his own Wonderland. Burton’s Underworld provides a visual smorgasbord, often remaining true to Carroll’s original elements. The scornful flowers and horse-fly and dragon-fly make an early appearance, as well as the flamingos-cum-croquet mallets.
The final battle between the playing card soldiers of the Red Queen and the chess piece army of the White Queen occurs on a huge chessboard. The use of hearts as the ubiquitous symbol of the tyrannical Red Queen evokes the Nazi’s coercion of the swastika, formerly an emblem of luck. Pre-teen jewelry will never recover from a heart-shaped ax appearing to take off Johnny Depp’s head.
Helena Bonham Carter’s portrayal of the Red Queen as a “toddler becomes, unfortunately, the most nuanced acting in the film. Carter said she based the character on her and Burton’s daughter Nell, “Toddlers have no sympathy for any living creature. That’s our toddler, Nell . Just bosses us around . It’s all about her.
Claire Danes lookalike Mia Wasikowska delivers on the straightforward ingénue role. She conveys a personality consistent with the original Alice: both catalyst and foil for the wackier characters, who is herself fairly uninteresting.
Anne Hathaway’s description of her White Queen character leaves the unsatisfying impression that the audience missed out on what could have been a complex character. Hathaway doesn’t deliver the “punk rock vegan pacifist she claims to have portrayed, and seems nearly as sugary as Belinda in “The Wizard of Oz.
Johnny Depp’s highly anticipated depiction of the Mad Hatter similarly falls flat. Jack Sparrow felt crazier than this hatter, his every eye flick carrying some inscrutable significance. Depp’s madness feels G-rated, as if he gingerly gums the character rather than sinking in his teeth.
Forcing Depp to break into a random dance number, even if David Bernal doubled for him, feels wrong, like making Marlon Brando do a commercial for Toys R Us. Alice performing a simple version of the dance before the astonished guests at her engagement party provided the final squirt of tackiness to a story already inundated with cheese.
Perhaps the adult fans that pushed “Alice to the top of box office charts over the weekend were all mistaken: Burton really intended this for children, as Carroll never did.
Oxford scholar Melanie Bayley’s piece in the New York Times offers interesting insight into Carroll’s (Dodgson’s) “Alice as satirizing developments in his field of mathematics. Perhaps Dodgson did not in fact intend “Alice as total lunacy, but at least he pursued a useful purpose.
If Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland were a food, it would be an artificially sweetened candy containing vitamin C added so it could be marketed as “healthy. Entertaining perhaps, but unless you get a big kick out of 3D glasses, the film has almost no intrinsic value.