I was eagerly looking forward to Tim Burton’s take on Lewis Carroll all through 2009, but by the time it was finally released in Tokyo, in April of 2010, the marketing over-exposure had put me right off it, and I never got around to seeing it in the theater. However, it did inspire me to watch a lot of other related movies, including the excellent Pan’s Labyrinth.
When I finally got around to seeing it today, like so many other viewers, I was somewhat disappointed. With an enormous budget from Disney, Tim Burton at the helm, and lots of CGI, this could have been the first film adaptation of Alice in Wonderland to fully capture the strangeness and, well, wonderment of Lewis Carroll’s vision. The most dismaying decisions were made not Burton, but by screenwriter Linda Woolverton. Woolverton previously penned Beauty and the Beast (1991) and Mulan (1998) and has become the go-to writer for Disney-approved fifth-wave feminist girl power. Burton rejected the label of “re-imagining” (which usually means “throwing away all of the good stuff”) for his film. He also denied that it is a sequel to any of the earlier films. But that is exactly what this is. Some 13 years after her original adventures, Alice, now aged 19, accidentally returns to Underland, which she misheard as “wonderland” the first time around. The only scene taken directly from the Carroll story is a brief flashback of the 6-year-old Alice having tea with the Mad Hatter, something she had long written off as a recurring dream which she now realized was an actual experience. Alice soon learns that it has been foretold that she will slay the Jabberwocky, and she goes on a mission with the help of the Mad Hatter et al. The obvious question that no one seems to have asked is why they even released this under the title Alice in Wonderland. Why not Alice Returns to Wonderland, or Alice in Underland, or even How to Kill your Dragon?
In Woolverton’s script, Alice is on the brink of marriage to a lord, a social move orchestrated by her mother after the untimely death of her visionary father. Although a privileged future is mapped out for her, Alice is to the Victorian area what Lady Gaga is to the 2010s, eschewing conventional roles in order to forge a path of her own. Somewhat problematically, the film ends with Alice starting an apprenticeship with a British trading firm, setting sail to exploit, er… trade with China. The fanciful Alice, who sees through the pretension and emptiness of proper society, and enjoys daydreaming is endearing. But when she is told that she and she alone can save the misfits of Underland by slaying the feared beast that is controlled by the equally feared Red Queen, all of the eccentric characters are reduced to sidekicks helping her in her mission. And her mission, as it has been for the protagonist of nearly every Hollywood movie since Armageddon, is to save the whole world, or all of Underland, anyway. This same overblown sense of scale was also applied to the recent adaptation of Sherlock Holmes. Rather than make the audience identify with the character, it just makes the stories seem silly. In the third-act, Alice transforms into a Joan of Arc type of character who is the muscle behind the clever, but slightly off-kilter White Queen, and slays the Jabberwocky, which most reviewers described as “the same CGI dragon fight we have seen in a 100 movies already.” Not me—since these are just the kind of movies that I try to avoid.
The major reworking of the plot framework was supposed to be the addition that would raise this above Carroll’s episodic story of a girl meeting one strange character after another, but it turns out to be the weakest link. The performances, including Johnny Depp’s controversial turn as the Mad Hatter, are fine, and it will be interesting to see what Mia Wasikowska goes on to do as she clearly has talent and not only the anemic look that Burton seems to love. But there is so much computer generated imagery, and it is so seamlessly blended, that is it sometimes hard to tell where the human performances begin and where the RAM picks up. The Mad Hatter’s Futterwacken dance is so dependent of internet sensation David Elsewhere and 3D graphics rendering, it is not even clear if Depp was even present for the filming.