There are few books that have been adapted to visual mediums as much as Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories (Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There), and it stands to reason, too. With their evocative use of nonsense verse, fantastic imagery and whimsical characters, the Alice stories feel like they were written to be brought to life. Not only that, but the scenarios presented have a satirical sensibility that’s ingeniously made palatable for children. Depending on the adapter, one could use the Alice stories to subversively present a critique on any idea to children and adult alike — from organized religion to the judicial system to mathematical theories. It’s a thinking person’s satire dressed up as a merry children’s bedtime story and vice versa. Complex and interesting, visual and cerebral, the stories embody imagination itself.
But screw that noise! Read the cliff notes, adapt the books into another effects-driven, generic fantasy action film and make some fucking BANK!
Admittedly, Tim Burton’s recent take on Carroll’s works starts with promise. The movie opens with young Alice waking from a nightmare about Wonderland and her father consoles her back to sleep. Flash forward several years: Alice is now a 19-year-old, her father has passed away and she can’t help but dream of a less stifling life. She and her mother attend a social gathering where Alice discovers that it is intended to be her engagement party as she is proposed to by a stuck-up, pompous git whom she is arranged to marry. Given that this is mid-to-late nineteenth century England, she has little say in the matter. With all of the party goers standing around waiting for her to say “yes,” Alice spots a curiously familiar white rabbit in a jacket, flees from the party to chase him and finds herself falling down the rabbit hole once again.
It’s at this point that the film’s quality goes down with her.
As a fair warning to you, I’m about to get into some serious, major spoilers here. However, it ultimately doesn’t matter because when you get down to it, you’ve already seen this film many, many times before and already know how it goes.
I don’t think anyone was expecting a true word-for-word retelling of Alice in Wonderland, and anyone who has seen some of Tim Burton’s other book-to-film adaptations can attest to that. Everyone has seen interpretations of Alice in Wonderland and the last thing we need is another retread. Besides, this can’t possibly be the same story since it clearly establishes itself as a pseudo-sequel (to an already existing sequel) that follows an older Alice who is returning to Wonderland… or at least it would be, if the filmmakers didn’t decide to change the name of the damn place. Yes, it’s no longer called Wonderland — it’s Underland. According to Absalom, the Blue Caterpillar, she apparently misheard the name when she was little.
Oh, but the “Underland” renaming is just one example of the many unnecessary changes made to the established backstory that, in my opinion, ultimately hurt the movie overall. Keep in mind, there’s nothing wrong with putting a twist on an old story. The fairy tale of Cinderella that we all know and love has tons of variants and is quite different than its original incarnation. After all, the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland — witty and clever as it is — is a pretty unstructured narrative without much conflict, so I could see how one might have to change some things to make it an engaging film for modern audiences. Also, aging Alice to early adulthood is a welcome idea that’s rife with possibilities in how one could interpret the story (see the analysis of themes in the film Labyrinth for possibilities). But some of the changes to Alice make you wonder what the filmmakers were thinking.
Anyway, back to the story. It turns out that the White Rabbit intentionally lured Alice down the rabbit hole because — according to an all-knowing scroll called the Oraculum — it has been prophesied that on Frabjous Day, Alice would come and save Underland (*grinds teeth*) from the rule of the tyrannical Red Queen by slaying the Jabberwocky. As the rabbit explains the situation to Alice, they are attacked by the Bandersnatch and separated. Alice then stumbles around Underland (…ugh) without guidance and runs into only the most famous of the characters from the books while trying to find the vorpal sword (the only thing that will kill the Jabberwocky) and avoiding detection from the Knave of Hearts, the Red Queen’s personal assassin.
If this synopsis sounds like it’s a dragon-slaying, Lancelot-styled fantasy also-ran with the Wonderland characters and setting being merely window dressing to the proceedings, then you’re ahead of the game.
While one can appreciate a more story-driven reinvention of the source material, several characters have to do an about-face just so the plot can make sense. Not only that, but anyone who is familiar with the books and other adaptations might be disappointed to see what many of these beloved figures have become in this film. Granted, this is supposed to be a dark reinvention of Alice and I understand that, but seeing the Dormouse as a needle-brandishing, bloodlust-filled crusader who literally gouges out creatures’ eyes instead of the sleepy loser who was picked on by a foppish version of the Marx brothers can be disheartening to fans of the stories.
The “kill the big, bad monster” plot and brooding visuals clash unsuccessfully with the cartoonishly dry, British whimsy that many of the movie’s characters try to pull off (“try” being the key word). This PG-rated film wants to be both family friendly and dark and scary, but like a jack of all trades, it succeeds at neither and just comes across as off-putting. For example, The Mad Tea Party — where the March Hare, Mad Hatter and Dormouse sit around singing “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Bat” — is sandwiched between scenes of the Bandersnatch getting its eye ripped out by the Dormouse (busy little bastard, ain’t he?) and Alice having to cross a moat by using severed heads as stepping stones. It’s like the ’80s all over again.
Not only are the characters and atmosphere at odds with what we’ve come to know, but the film’s message doesn’t make any sense. At one point in the film, Alice decides to go to the Red Queen’s castle because she wants to rescue the Mad Hatter from imprisonment. Bayard, a talking bloodhound, tells Alice that she can’t do that because the prophecy says that she needs to go to the White Queen’s palace instead. Alice then tells him that she doesn’t care about some prophecy and that she makes her own path. She then goes into the Red Queen’s castle and yadda, yadda, yadda. At that moment, I thought that perhaps this film was going to throw us a curveball: Will Alice buck convention and find a peaceful, non-violent resolution by “making her own path?”
Nope. She accepts her destiny (literally becoming a knight in shining armor) and fights the damn Jabberwocky — exactly as the Oraculum said. So much for making her own path.
After Alice has her adventure in (W)Underland, she comes back to the engagement party and blows off her arranged suitor. She then proceeds to tell off everyone else at the party who tried to put her down, effectively taking charge and making her own path.
So… what is this movie trying to say? Should we accept the responsibility that fate has in store for us or are we masters of our own destiny? Which is it, movie? It can’t be both.
Despite all that I have said so far, there were a few things that I enjoyed about the film. Some of the special effects are really good and convincing, and many of the CGI characters are well-acted animated and vocal performances. Anne Hathway was, by far, my favorite live-action actor in the movie. She plays the White Queen as a tongue-in-cheek exaggeration of a Disney Princess, constantly keeping her arms daintily aloft at hip height and floating in and out of frame. It’s hard to describe, but she’s basically a parody of Disney’s Snow White and it’s pretty funny.
There’s been much ado about Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen performance — either you love it or hate it. I found it grating at times and an impersonation of Blackadder‘s Queenie the rest of the time. (Was Miranda Richardson too busy or something?) Mia Wasikowska makes a really bland Alice, only displaying emotion to show that she is either bored or annoyed — the rest of the time she looks like she’s moments away from falling asleep. Johnny Depp plays the Mad Hatter as a D.I.D. sufferer who has random, manic anger fits and… it’s pretty cringe-worthy. If you can tolerate seeing him slip in and out of having a Scottish brogue, I guarantee that you won’t survive seeing him do his “flutterwacken.”
When the movie was over, I could only say to myself, “Why?” Why make the March Hare the White Queen’s cook when the books already had a cook they could have used? Why was the Mad Hatter given Scottish traits but then did an anachronistic (and embarrassing) break dance at the end of the movie instead of doing a Scottish highland fling? Why did they make the Dormouse a nigh-murderous sociopath? Why did Alice have to say that shitty, awful line as she killed the Jabberwocky? Why was this movie made?
If anything, they should have just gotten the license to American McGee’s Alice and made that instead. It’s basically the same plot, except more thought out, mature and it doesn’t entirely crap on the characterizations. What a missed opportunity.