Sunday, March 21, 2010
The Latest Alice
Lewis Carroll's Alice books ought to be irresistible to contemporary filmmakers: finally, with all of the high-tech animation & imaging techniques at their disposal, they can capture something of the metamorphic dream-logic of the two novels the shy, child-loving Oxford maths don Charles Dodgson published in 1865 & 1871, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. I came into Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland with a pretty open mind, in my ears one of my student's kvetches from a few weeks ago: "Tim Burton can't do anything but dark remakes of classic stories!" "But have you actually read Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?" said I, "or Frank Miller's Batman?"
The Alices that hit the screen are almost inevitably conflations of the two novels, with favorite bits of Looking-Glass (Tweedledee & Tweedledum, Humpty-Dumpty, the Walrus & the Carpenter, etc.) stuck into the elastic, picaresque frame of the first novel. (Frankly, I don't think I'd seen any of the film adaptations, animated or otherwise, until the last few years & the advent of my own kids. I remembered the books from repeated, obsessive re-readings from early childhood thru college – Wonderland as a perplexing, hallucinatory but generally jovial dream, Looking-Glass as a dark, scary, even tragic nightmare.) That's always struck me as in one way or another inadequate.
Burton's solution is ingenious, if ultimately also inadequate. He sets his film as a return to Wonderland (or "Underland," as the denizens call it) by a 19-year-old Alice. (Shades of Walter Murch's 1985 Return to Oz.) All of the favorite characters are there – the Cheshire Cat, the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, Tweedledee & Tweedledum, the White Rabbit – and Burton incorporates the "game" frames of the novels (Adventures revolves around decks of cards, while Looking-Glass is modeled on a game of chess) by structuring the film as a quest-adventure-conflict in which the Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham-Carter, for once not at all attractive with a three-times digitally inflated head), leading her army of amazingly conceived card-soldiers, is on the warpath against her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, radiant in white clothes, white hair, and black lipstick), whose troops wear helmets modeled on chess pieces. And oh yeah, Alice herself has to take up the Vorpal Sword and slay the Jabberwock. Stephen Fry voices a Cheshire Cat who looks remarkly like Sir John Tenniel's illustration, and Johnny Depp alternately out-crazies Jack Sparrow and out-emotes Stanislavski as the Mad Hatter.
Yes, the visuals are amazing, no other word for them. But one can't help leaving the film with the sense that Burton's entirely betrayed the novels. It's worse than Charlie, where Burton seemed compelled to invent a quite silly back story in order to "explain" Willy Wonka's wonderful, inexplicable eccentricities: his fidelity to the bulk of Dahl's novel redeemed that film, even made it superior to the "classic" Willy Wonka (J. disagrees). Here he's turned a pair of marvelously pointless, endlessly thought-provoking, picaresque dream-journeys into just another coming-of-age adventure flick.
At the end, Alice is told that she's welcome to stay in Underland (and boy is there a "spark" of something between her & the Hatter), but of course she opts to return to Victorian England. In the film's final scene she (wholly unbelievably, monstrously, patently anachronistically) becomes a partner in her father's old firm and sails East to open up the China trade (any guesses on what was in the caterpillar's hookah?). That, I'm afraid, is as much a dream as Alice's shaking the Red (chess) Queen until she turns into a kitten. But given the hokey journey to self-knowledge and self-reliance Burton has built his movie around, he couldn't very well have put her back into the realistic choices available to a Victorian woman.
Posted by Mark Scroggins at 9:53 PM