He thought he saw an Elephant,
That practiced on a fife:
He looked again, and found it was
A letter from his wife.
“At length I realise,” he said,
“The bitterness of Life!”
— Lewis Carroll
I Thought I Saw an Alice
The scuttlebutt around Hollywood is that Tim Burton despises the Disney cartoon adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There (both public domain and available free online). He always thought Uncle Walt tampered too much with the originals.
The irony is that Walt Disney’s version has supplanted the books in the popular imagination, to the point that Burton has no choice but to call this adaptation/re-imagination by the same name as the Walt Disney version, Alice in Wonderland. And with the Disney company footing the bill, he and screenwriter Linda Woolverton have concocted a story that uses many of the beloved characters from the original stories, but which works equally well as a sequel to either the cartoon movie or the books.
Save for an early prologue, this movie’s Alice is no child, she’s a willful girl of nineteen-going-on-twenty, a ripe old age in Victorian England, seemingly doomed to marry an effete lord with bad indigestion. After a highly-peer-pressured proposal, she escapes down a rabbit hole and into “Underland” — which she had been to as a young girl, but mis-remembered as Wonderland. (And perhaps the name is a nod to the title of Carroll’s first draft of the original book, Alice’s Adventures Underground.)
Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland doesn’t so much adapt Carroll’s books or the Disney movie as it does The Wizard of Oz. Like the Wizard of Oz 1939 classic fantasy film, each of the characters of the overworld have Underland analogues. And like Frank L. Baum’s Oz book series, the female protagonist becomes a proxy in a conflict between two female power figures and their assorted madcap associates. Here it is the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter, the best performance of the film) and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, also excellent), both borrowing traits from The Dutchess character of the first Alice book.
Mia Wasikowska, as Alice, would have a tough acting job to do to carry another movie of equal length that didn’t have strong performers in outsize roles (Crispin Glover and Johnny Depp are bizarre as usual, but not to great effect). Here she must also compete with fully-digital 3D Burtonesque Wonderland. Her performance did not engage me, and Burton fails to coach even decent line readings from her at several points.
Visually, Burton puts many of his signature design flourishes in, but in the broad strokes the movie relies upon Sir John Tenniel’s original and equally classic book illustrations. Other famous visual adaptations, such as Arthur Rackham’s are perhaps echoed here and there. The palette of the more apocalyptic scenes seemed very like Rackham’s, and some of the awesome expressionist sets looked a bit like the stylized concept art painted by Mary Blair for Walt Disney’s version.
The digital effects, such as the heart-shaped distortion of the Red Queen’s head, or the plumpification of Matt Lucas as Tweedledee and Tweedledum were well done to the point that they just worked for the story; the elongation of Crispin Glover’s Knave, on the other hand, felt very awkward. Overall, perhaps the reason the amazing Wonderland world that Burton and his collaborators have created for this movie is not getting much buzz is because of how much like a digital version of the Nightmare Before Christmas world it sometimes is.
As for the use of 3D, it’s much more extreme than many recent movies, and this seems about right. Burton is a director known for using wide-angle lenses and favoring extreme or distorted depth. It’s only natural that his preferences for stereoscopic photography would run the same way. We’re living in a kind of fun time right now, where we get to cross directors off a list. How would Tim Burton use 3D? Now we know. How would David Fincher use 3D? Still waiting.
The Alice Tradition
Many have tried unsuccessfully to apply a Freudian logic to the original free-associative whimsy of Carroll’s original, but with this film, those people have found a champion. Alice’s adventure in Wonderland this time is clearly about self-actualization and coming of age as a woman. While screenwriter Linda Woolverton puts in many references for Alice fanboys and fangirls, in turning the movie into a basic quest narrative, she chooses to riff on Carrollian characters in an un-Carrollian way.
A few bits of original Carroll-style wordplay, such as the line “you’ve lost your muchness,” get trotted out to be congratulated rather than being integral to the world. Carroll would not have stood for so linear a plot or so coherent of conversations. The one moment that seemed very un-Hollywood and very true to the books is when Alice, against all logic of self-preservation, falls asleep in the presence of a deadly animal.
Alice’s inability to remember her previous visit to Underland is a lame contrivance so that she can have identical adventures. Thankfully, only the room with many doors, the Mad Tea Party and a bit of the scene with flamingo-mallet hedgehog-ball croquet are fully derivative. (In the Walt Disney version, the story artists wisely created a new character for the room with many doors, a talking doorknob, which helped to add humor and conflict to the scene’s rather dull beginning.)
Alice’s inability to remember her previous visit does get a nice payoff at the end, when (spoiler!) a sad Hatter refuses to be comforted by Alice’s assertion she will soon return to see him again. “You’ll forget us like you did before,” he says.
Speaking of Alice and the Hatter, I’m pretty sure Burton means us to vibe that the Hatter is totally crushing on her. All I can say to that is… ew. I really don’t want to think about Depp’s semi-Scottish Hatter — now with tragic backstory! — in a liplock with the bloodless lolita Wasikowska.
The structure of the movie hinges around the rather literal interpretation of Carroll’s famous nonsense poem “Jabberwocky” as a prophecy. “Jabberwocky”, though it is included in Through the Looking-Glass, was originally written much earlier and circulated among Carroll’s friends and family as a parody of Anglo-Saxon poetry. With its vorpal blades and frumious bandersnatches, the poem is without a doubt Carroll’s most famous contribution to English literature, the nonsense words within a grammatical structure used to teach children and linguistics students alike about the deeper nature of nouns and verbs.
A math professor in a time when mathematics were destroying the orthodox view of the world, much of Carroll’s oeuvre has a deconstructive bent. The critical interpretation that has most endured is that his nonsensical narratives were a reflection of the intellectual topsy-turviness going on at Oxford College during his tenure there.
Carroll’s dissolutions of language and propriety surely felt more anarchic in their heyday, and not all of them have endured quite so well as “Jabberwocky”. Few people can recite the episode of “Pig and Pepper” or “The Caucus Race” from memory. When Walt Disney was working on his adaptation, he salted in songs and a more up-to-date sense of whimsy, purposely leaving out chapters like the aforementioned.
The characters Burton and Woolverton omit are equally telling. There’s no lizard with a ladder, nor are there any walruses or carpenters playing pied piper to a batch of baby oysters, two episodes from the Walt Disney version that are less memorable. They make their doormouse a female Reepicheep but borrow the cartoon version’s deus ex machina appearance of the Cheshire Cat, only this time (spoiler!) it’s to help the Hatter evade the executioner’s heart-shaped ax.
Not having seen the 1933 live-action version of the film, nor any of the many made-for-t.v.-versions, nonetheless I’m willing to go out on a limb and say that the cartoon version remains on its perch as the most successful screen adaptation. Burton is able to go toe-to-toe on a sheer visual level, but the cartoon version remains truer to the bizarre spirit of Carroll’s original, the impossible quality that somehow captivates children and baffles adults. So for all his rancor for the cartoon version’s alterations of the Victorian classic, it is Burton’s Alice that has lost its muchness.