Some people are saying Tim Burton’s version of Alice in Wonderland isn’t for kids. But if the kids are old enough to know their Lewis Carroll, this movie could serve as an excellent first lesson in how Hollywood — and especially Disney — gets books wrong.
With their episodic structure and frequent pauses for literary parody, Alice in Wonderland and its sequel are not easy works to turn into feature films. Yet Carroll’s comic, fantastical creations — characters who almost demand to be visualized — keep directors trying.
As a master of neo-Victorian phantasmagoria, Burton was a natural choice to direct the inevitable 3-D Alice packed with computer effects. But in giving the story a “stronger” plot, writer Linda Woolverton (who scripted Disney’s Beauty and the Beast) has turned it into a retread of The Wizard of Oz crossed with Harry Potter. The young person “chosen” to defeat evil is a girl this time, and her adventure is one whom parents of spirited daughters will no doubt appreciate. But the fact remains — Alice doesn’t live here anymore.
Newcomer Mia Wasikowska plays Alice Kingsley, a sheltered Victorian teen who believes her childhood jaunts to Wonderland were simply a dream. Burton’s slapstick period-piece prologue ends with Alice falling down the rabbit hole as she’s on the verge of yielding to a fop’s marriage proposal. It’s mostly downhill from there.
You see, Burton’s Underland (as the residents call it) isn’t a place of inspired randomness, perverse whimsy and ferocious mockery of authority figures, like Carroll’s Wonderland. The landscape may look psychedelic, but events there are bound by a scroll that prophesies a coming apocalyptic battle of good and evil. Yes, another one. Seems the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) is the scourge of Underland, and somebody named Alice is supposed to slay her pet monster, the Jabberwocky, on the “frabjous day.”
If you know and love the “Jabberwocky” poem, it feels sad to hear Carroll’s joyful exercise in nonsense language turned into a solemn, Tolkienesque pseudo-myth; his satire of epic poetry taken seriously. “Frabjous day” should always rhyme with “Callooh! Callay!” But not here.
The closest we get is when Johnny Depp mangles the poem’s first stanza with a Scottish burr. He plays the Mad Hatter, now a resistance fighter who appears to be afflicted with PTSD. With a Carrot Top coif and unblinking, sea-green eyes, Depp is memorable, but the camera fawns on him as if the Hatter were another so-crazy-he’s-sexy creation like Jack Sparrow. Not so.
Alice does entertain the eyes, as Wasikowska wanders through CGI landscapes that evoke Fragonard and Maxfield Parrish. The young actress is a fine choice, combining the sturdy beauty of a 19th-century ingenue with the original child Alice’s pluck and sternness. The rest of the cast — which includes Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry and Michael Sheen in voice roles — helps. Bonham Carter finds wonderfully irascible line deliveries for her stock villain, and Anne Hathaway is funny in a whole different way as the White Queen, a Glinda figure who seems more than a little out of it.
If only it didn’t all have to come down to that stupid battle and a message about following your dreams. As imaginariums go, Burton’s is certainly more coherent — and lucrative — than that of Doctor Parnassus. Yet I couldn’t help wondering what bizarre and inspired things Terry Gilliam, who made the cult film Jabberwocky back in 1977, might have done with Alice. We’ll never know.