‘Alice in Wonderland’: Unwonderful

March 2, 2010

As I walked out of the screening of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” which opens Friday (3/5/10), I thought of something a mentor of mine used to preach, which was that you can’t really criticize a work for what it doesn’t do, only for what it does.

 

My negative feelings about Burton’s film started early, when I realized that Burton was only drawing on Lewis Carroll’s famous fantasies for inspiration – he wasn’t doing a film adaptation. Which is disappointing: If there’s a modern filmmaker with the visual imagination to bring something new to Carroll’s stories, it’s Burton (or Terry Gilliam).

 

But Burton isn’t adapting Carroll’s stories. Instead, he’s appropriating Carroll’s characters and premise, then telling a different story completely. He and screenwriter Linda Woolverton have taken the classic story and turned it into a modern action-fantasy film – minus the humor of Carroll, or the absurdity or the heart.

 

That’s often been Burton’s problem: an unwillingness to sacrifice style for story. Script is frequently his shortcoming; he seems ever-ready to let the pace lag or the plot fizzle in order to sandwich in a moment that dazzles the eye, without engaging the brain.

 

So it is with this version of “Alice,” which is the kind of fairy tale Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich might make. It’s a movie trapped in a morass of moments that are either meant to stun or to demonstrate how cute this all is.

 

Or, rather, cutesy. That’s not the same as witty, though Burton mistakes them for each other, particularly in the scenes with Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. A one-off in the book, the Hatter becomes a major player in this film, with Depp letting his computer-enhanced eyes, his orange fright wig and his on/off Scottish brogue define the role. He’s meant to be the soulful scamp, the unpredictable comic relief who distracts (and teaches) Alice how to come to terms with her destiny (yes, she’s a lot like Frodo in this story).

 

The misguided script by Linda Woolverton starts with a 6-year-old Alice interrupting her father’s business meeting to tell him about a dream that awoke her, full of talking animals and walking playing cards. When we next see her, she’s the almost 20-year-old Mia Wasikowska, late of “In Treatment,” a pouty Victorian lass about to be betrothed to a chinless lord at a garden party.

 

Instead, she flees his proposal, chasing a rabbit in a waistcoat until she falls down a rabbit hole. So far, so good. She’s a little past the age of the traditional Alice but hey, let’s swing with it.

 

But once she gets past the tiny door (with all the “Eat Me” and “Drink Me” business), things take their turn toward action-fantasy and never look back. Alice finds herself the subject of a debate among the various creatures – is she the real Alice come back? (From where?) Or is she someone else? And can she slay the Jabberwock and save the Frabjous Day?

 

Before anyone can say too much, the whole group is under assault – by the Bandersnatch (a roaring cross between Garfield and a hyena, with a multiple row of teeth), a group of playing-card robots and the Knave of Hearts (the appropriately cast Crispin Glover). Alice escapes but ultimately learns that an oracle has foretold her destiny: to kill the Jabberwock and return the crown from the Red Queen to the White Queen.

 

Yes, it’s “The Lord of the Rings” and every woman-warrior myth you’ve ever heard of, with a Lewis Carroll overlay. It’s all about forward motion, about Alice finding her “muchness” and saving the day. And it never goes anywhere except down the drain.

 

Sure, Carroll’s characters populate the foreground, including the Cheshire Cat, the March Hare, the Dormouse, Tweedledee and –dum. But there’s none of Carroll’s wit, no sense of his period and what the books reflected about his time. Nor does Burton use the opportunity to comment on his own period – or any other.

 

I seldom think of myself as a traditionalist but this film brought it out of me full force. Carroll’s stories are classics for a reason. But Burton ignores those reasons and makes what is, by today’s standard, an absolutely conventional action-fantasy, chockablock with computer effects, outsized performances and, of course, 3-D. With the exception of Alice (who spends most of the film either smaller or larger than everyone else), all of the characters played by human actors have been distorted to one level of grotesquerie or another.

 

Alice herself is surprisingly sexualized – not that she’s a naked hottie, but she’s got a nymphet look (with off-the-shoulder gowns barely staying up), when she’s not got up in something that looks like a Fashion Week reject. Again, there’s nothing overtly sexual – and Alice is nearly 20 – but you can’t help feeling that Burton is playing to the dirty old men in the audience.

 

Everyone jabbers so quickly and ridiculously that Wasikowski seems like a sourpuss by comparison. The actors who merely lend voices seem to have the better of it, getting the few funny lines (or maybe it’s just Alan Rickman’s delivery as the caterpillar).

 

So let me be clear about this. I was disappointed that Tim Burton thought he could dispense with Lewis Carroll’s novels when he made this film. I would still like to see his version.

 

But my disdain for his “Alice in Wonderland” is all about what he’s done with this film, not with what he hasn’t done. It may be the worst film he’s made since “Planet of the Apes” or the second “Batman” film.

 

 

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