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.


Bradley said...

See, the ending was the one thing I really liked about the movie. That it couldn't have happened didn't really bother me-- I found that I enjoyed the movie a lot more once I decided that this was Tim Burton's "Batman for girls!"-- an action/ adventure movie that sacrifices a lot of the magic and sense of weirdness played up by other adaptations in service to a "girl power" message that I'd be really excited to have my hypothetical daughter hear.

Frankly, understanding the movie in that way helps me to appreciate it more. If I thought I was the target audience, I'd be kinda disappointed. I disagree with your assessment of the film's visuals; I think it's actually one of Burton's weakest. I was hoping for dark, Sleepy Hollow-esque woods and bright, Edward Scissorhands-esques castles (and manicured landscapes). Instead, it felt like effin' Avatar. And I didn't really enjoy any of the performances (except for the dweeby suitor guy who proposes marriage in the very beginning). Everything in "Underland" felt oddly restrained to me. I would have thought that watching Crispin Glover and Johnny Depp in a Tim Burton adaptation of Lewis Carroll would have been more outrageous, somehow.

As I said, I didn't hate the movie by any stretch, and I think I'd appreciate it even more if I had kids. In general, I enjoy Tim Burton's work very much (even the back story in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which I thought was great precisely because it was so dumb). But I found this one to be a bit closer to Planet of the Apes than Ed Wood on the Tim Burton awesomeness scale.

Ed Baker said...

just watched a bit of this 1966 Alice in Wonderland last night:


here's about it:

what of it I saw ... "something-else-again"!

gonna track this one down

notice Ravi Shankar wrote the music! and 'check out' the cast!

SOME CAST and 'twas a live tv-play LIVE BBC TELEVISION! Remember L I V E TV!!!

and and,

here are some of the Alice and Wonderland movies made :

Alice in Wonderland (2010)
Alice in Wonderland (1985) (TV)
Alice in Wonderland (1903) (TV)
Alice in Wonderland (1988) (V)
Alice in Wonderland (1915)
Alice in Wonderland (1931)
Alice in Wonderland (1982) (TV)
Alice in Wonderland (1995) (V)
Alice in Wonderland (1955) (TV)
Alice in Wonderland (1986) (TV)
Alice in Wonderland (1991/I)
Alice in Wonderland (2005)
Alicia en el paĆ­s de las maravillas (1976)
Alice in Wonderland (1937) (TV)
Alice in Wonderland (1966/I) (TV)
"Alice in Wonderland" (1985) (TV series)
"Alice in Wonderland" (1991) (TV series)
Alice in Wonderland (2009)

Ed Baker said...

more re: that 1966 BBC production - a neat review of it:

it's been re-issued.. I just got a NEW DVD copy (including S & H) for under $10!

I sure miss my 10" Philco Black-and-White!

Ed Baker said...

and here is a "bit" out of the 1933 Alice in Wonderland

(WC FIELDS IS Humpty Dumpty!)


same movie 1933 The White Rabbit:

plainwater said...

Have you seen Alice Through the Looking Glass? It stars Kate Beckinsale as a grown-up Alice going through the mirror all over again. It too incorporates the game aspect of the stories. Overall, not bad for a not good movie.

J. A. Giardini said...

Of the Alice films I've seen, ignoring a leftover childhood fondness for the Disney version, Jan Svankmajer's 1988 stop motion film ( is far and away the one I would recommend. It is "dark" I suppose -- certainly far darker than anything Tim Burton has made -- but entirely compelling throughout, though likely not for children.

Worth looking up the trailer on youtube anyway. Assuming you're still interested in such a thing at all, seeing that you wrote this post a year ago.

Ed Baker said...

the version of this Victorian masterpiece that "blows" all the others away is the 1966 filmed for the BBC version.


Peter Sellers, John Gielgud, Michael Redgrave, Peter Cook, Leo McKern AND the music is by Ravi Shankar.

Annie-Marie MMallik plays Alice.

I first saw parts of this film (& the original silent film version) on PBS last year then I tracked down a copy got a BRAND NEW DVD of it for $3.99 + $4.99 S/H. WORTH EVERY PENNY