Alice in Wonderland

No frabjous days, no frabjous nights:

Alice In Wonderland is no wonder at all


Detail of image by The Phantom Photographer, © 2010.
Click to view the original.

Tim Burton's movies just keep getting dumber.

Having now watched this bland and witless travesty of a take on Lewis Carroll's immortal diptych, Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking-Glass, I can only imagine that Burton's next project will be a "re-visioning" of Winnie the Pooh, one in which the bear of very little brain — no doubt played by a pumped-up Johnny Depp — will be on a mission of vengeance: not to trap the heffalump, but to slay it.

Worst of all, Winnie-ther-Pooh, Heffalump-Slayer, will succeed in gory 3-D, only after we have been forced to sit through a back-story that includes Kanga's prescient investments in the Australian coal-mining industry and Piglet's unhappy marriage to Eyore's cheating cousin, Beyoncéyore.

Excuse me. I digress ...

Once upon a time, there was a young movie director called Tim Burton, who burst upon my consciousness with three arguably slight, but nevertheless well-written, witty and wonderfully visualized fantasies, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas. (I suppose I should confess that I haven't seen any of these films in many years; it is quite possible my impressions are tinted infra-red. But I think I retain pretty clear memories of all three. Onwards. [Edit, 2010/07/13: It has been pointed out to me by Sooguy that the actual director of The Nightmare Before Christmas was Henry Selick.])

Burton showed a subtle comedic touch along with the ability to limn character with a few strokes of the cinematic brush, along with a love for the macabre and a strange and genuinely original visual imagination.

Yet signs of his onrushing senescence manifested almost simultaneous with those of his blossoming talent.

Enter the Batman ...

Though a box-office and a popular hit, Batman epitomized Hollywood block-busters at their worst.

The movie probably sounded like a fabulous concept when it was being pitched and the end-product looked great — Burton's Gotham is a decaying hulk of a once-great city; organic and sterile, futuristic and yet built upon the cast-iron fantasies of the early twentieth century; the aesthetic anticipated (or was at least an early example of) steam-punk, with atmosphere and imagery that suggested another Terry Gilliam in the making.

But unlike even Gilliam's worst failures, Burton's Batman had no brain. And, if anything, his Alice is even worse.

In those days, when super-hero adaptations were a rarity, seeing one that looked that good probably satisfied the fans and obviously got a lot of curious bums into the seats, but it was a profoundly stupid movie.

The plot flowed with all the energy of molasses spilled on a prairie and, worse, the story made little or no sense, even in comic book super-hero terms, and the characters came and went with no purpose. In particular, the love-interest, Kim Bassinger's Vicky Vale, was simply forgotten. Had she not appeared at all, the movie would have been a merciful few minutes shorter but otherwise unchanged.

by Lewis Carroll

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"

He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought —
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood awhile in thought.

And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock, with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through the tulgey wood,
And burbled as it came!

One, two! One, two! and through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.

"And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!"
He chortled in his joy.

'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

Alice the Jabberwocky-slay —
(Oh nevermind)

Of the Burton vehicles I've seen since then, Ed Wood, Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, only Wood struck me as a real movie. The others, with the partial exception of Chocolate Factory, were vapid vehicles apparently meant only to provide onanistic license to Johnny Depp's inner ham and to Burton's grotesque visual aesthetic — until Alice, the only aspect of Burton's talent which seemed undiminished.

It's that aesthetic that kept me haunting the video stores to see what he was up to and to learn if, perhaps, he'd re-discovered his story-teller's muse. (Ed Wood came close enough that I wasted the price of a first-run movie ticket on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.)

All of which is to explain why I approached his latest movie, Alice in Wonderland with both a great deal of critical trepidation but also, with a more hope than I had any reasonable expectation to.

(Be warned: There are spoilers galore below.)

Alice the Jabberwocky slayer!

Yes folks, the photo on your right is our own Alice, much changed from the days when she slipped through the gauze-like looking-glass in her family's parlour.

Tim Burton's Alice has a sword, and she's going to use it!

Now look: I'm really not one of those purists who run around raising cane every time someone lummox deigns to mess with one of my favourite classics. I dislike Peter Jackson's (mis)interpretation of Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, but certainly not because he gave a female elf a sword and a bigger part in the story.

Indeed, the history of art is a history of theft, acknowledged and otherwise; of originals revered, revised and reviled — take Gus Van Sant's retelling of Shakespeare's Henry plays, My Own Private Idaho, as but one example of how to do it right.

So if Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton want to tell a story of Alice as a young woman (played with competent blandness by the photogenic new-comer Mia Wasikowska), then more power to them! Why not? After all, Carroll himself was stealing, borrowing and adapting from all over the place in his own books.

But, especially when the artist's source material is a genuine classic, the viewer would like to come away with the impression that the artist has at least some understanding of that from which they crib.

The first signs of the (sad) shape of things to come arrive with the movie's very first scene. Alice's father is discussing his business, and dreaming out loud of expanding his mercantile empire into the Far East, thus grounding the film in some kind of historical reality (though why we are expected to, later, applaud the urge to exploit the Chinese is left unexplained). Little Alice interrupts her father's soirée, in tears and having just awoken from "the nightmare again". Her kindly father comforts her, teasing her that she is indeed, "mad, bonkers, off your head."

Still, the movie quickly takes us a decade into the future, to meet a grown-up Alice who has clearly taken after her adventurous father. No corset or stockings for her!

In short, the first quarter-hour of the movie introduces us to a thoroughly 21st century Victorian girl underneath the frills and family obligations and the threat of marriage to an appalling upper-class suitor — before she chases after the famously tardy white rabbit and the real movie (such as it is) begins.

Ah! the real movie! Did I mention that Tim Burton's movies get stupider and stupider, and that if Burton had a good reason for calling the creature which Carroll named "the jabberwock" a "jabberwock"y, the point was certainly lost on me.

If they had dramatic or artistic cause to make of the phrase, "oh frabjous day!" an actual day day, like Christmas Day, or Mother's Day, the point was, once more, quite lost on this viewer.

Do I seem shallow and petty if I complain that calling The Mad Hatter, "Hatter", as if one would call a Mad Tax Assessor, "Tax Assessor"? Possibly not, but maybe so.

In any case, Burton's Alice does indeed call the Mad Hatter (who, it turns out, develops quite a crush on the poor girl), "Hatter".

And speaking of the Mad Hatter, he isn't. Mad that is. Possibly a little bi-polar, but mostly he uses his so-called madness as a disguise. The "Mad" Hatter is in fact some sort of rebel against the Red Queen and playing at being a lunatic helps keep him out of her dungeons.

Because in Tim Burton's Alice, there are no non-sensically hostile creatures twisting logic and language, no three-dimensional chess-games or hallucinatory scene transitions. There are no puns, no airy flights of fancy, no playful non-sense.

What it does have are a few insulting jokes at the expense of the Red Queen's truly bulbous head (though there is no apparent internal reason that her head is exceptionally large), and a plot.

Yes, a plot. A pretty standard, high-fantasy, coming-of-age Hollywood adventure plot, in fact.

With, y'know, chase scenes and battles; with political intrigue and expository dialogue; and with a Golden Child (er, that would be Alice herself, in case you haven't figured it out) prophesied to save "Underland" from its evil Queen.

And so, in this case, Alice must become a warrior maiden, as if The Lord of the Rings' Éowyn had wandered into the wrong movie and slain not the Captain of the Ringwraiths but instead the Jabberwock(y) and —

Oh, get ahold of yourself, Young Geoffrey!

Yes, it's all true.

Burton and his screenwriter have taken Carroll's unique, bizarre, often morbid and frankly perverse vision and homogenized it into a heroic fantasy pabulum, of good guys and bad guys and a girl who resolves the story with the help a magic sword (the "The Vorpal Sword", of course!).

There's not much else to say.

Alice In Wonderland is a kind of negative portmanteau of a movie, neither freely-inspired by its source to become something new, nor a respectful homage to the original, re-telling an old tale for a new day.

Instead, it is just a mess. Dull, uninspired, unoriginal, trite and witless; missing everything, in fact, that made of its namesake a genuine classic.

And this time around, even Burton's visuals seem tired. There is little here that isn't implicit in Sir John Tenniel's original drawings, and what is seems drawn from the back-stock of an off-the-shelf cgi factory.

If I could shake Tim Burton into a harmless kitten, I would. Since I can't, I'll have to make do by trying my best to never waste my time on one of his films again.

Spread the word!

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I agree. "Alice in Wonderland" was a bland piece of crap.

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