My thoughts on Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

Needless to say, this post will contain spoilers. Deal with it.

I saw Tim Burton’s new “Alice in Wonderland 3D” movie recently. Before I went in though I heard a lot of bad stuff, colleagues in work, folk on social websites, etc. thought it was boring, the Narna-fication of Alice, wonderland without the wonder and that it was simply a bad movie. (Oddly since I’ve seen it I’ve found equal numbers of people online who did enjoy it).  But I’m a huge Alice in Wonderland fan (I’ll give you one guess what my daughter’s name is). I have several editions of the book including this wonderful Robert Sabuda popup (which is by far my favourite edition!):

Alice in Wonderland popup #1 Alice in Wonderland popup #2

I even got these Alice in Wonderland tarot cards:

Alice in Wonderland Tarot Cards

(Is it sad I prove my obsession with Alice in Wonderland with the merchandise I’ve bought?)

So there was no doubt in my mind that I would go see this movie, despite the negativity. So on St. Paddy’s day, once the kids were in bed, I headed by myself to the cinema. It was also going to be my first 3D movie, having missed Avatar (and not feeling any lesser for it).

As for my first impressions of 3D… well my very first impressions were bad. In fact I thought there was something wrong with me, I saw something akin to a 3D effect but it was blurred and giving my headaches. I wondered if it was something to do with the 3D glasses on top of my normal glasses. As it turns out, 15 minutes into the movie, the lights come on and the usher apologises: the 3D projection was broken. Now when it came on, the 3D popped! I was impressed. It seemed to work best when there was an object was floating within the bounds of the frame, like leaves blowing by or the Cheshire Cat floating around but when something leans out of the movie, like a Jabberwocky head, it doesn’t work. I guess the effect is broken because I eyes can see the frame of the picture. Despite my reservations of Avatar’s story (based on the trailers and memes online), I could well imagine how it would make an excellent vehicle for demonstrating this 3D technology.

American McGee's Alice figurine

One of the great things about Alice and the works of Lewis Carroll is that they are particularly suitable for adaptations and people putting their own spin on them. Nonsense and dreams are ripe for metaphors and symbolism and Lewis Carroll’s work is rife with subtle satires. One of my favourite ones is American McGee’s Alice, a computer game. (And here again I show how much I liked it by showing the merchandising I bought for it, see right). When I first heard about Tim Burton’s film, I had hoped it was adaptation based on this game, but alas that movie looks like it’ll never happen (Wes Craven was to direct that). But there is a sequel to the computer game in the works. In American McGee’s Alice, a adult Alice has gone insane and must return to Wonderland to stop the Red Queen (and hence save herself). Notice the similarity there?

Anyway, what did I think of this movie? I think, first, it was titled wrong. It should have been “Tim Burton’s Alice” or “Alice Returns to Wonderland”, but I guess the marketers figured that people wouldn’t get that its based on Alice in Wonderland, if it wasn’t called Alice in Wonderland. Still, it frames the whole thing wrong. We start with this story of a older Alice who is being forcible encouraged to become engaged to someone she doesn’t love. And so, she runs from the problem and returns to Wonderland, but she doesn’t remember her first trip to Wonderland. The real world stuff feels the weakest part of the movie and way too long for what it is. It’s all setup and thusly boring.

But once we get into Wonderland… my. It took me a while to realise why they were calling Wonderland “Underland”, until I remembered that Alice in Wonderland was originally called “Alice’s adventures underground”. And the references to Alice’s adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are everywhere. That made it a joy to watch, to see Tim Burton’s vision of the Wonderland come to life. The fish and frog servants, the Knave and those wonderfully long arms, the Queen with the great big head (reminded me of Queenie from Blackadder), the cheeky and whimsical Cheshire Cat, the Jubjub bird, Matt Lucas as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee (“fat boys”) and so on and so on.

johntenniel_jabberwocky I’m normally not a fan of “clever plots” in movies, as they have a tendency to pull me the viewer out of the experience, but I found this time, the clever plot worked for me. Alice returns to Wonderland as per the “prophecy” of the Jabberwocky poem, and they use John Tenniel’s original drawings, the one where the knight is fighting the jabberwocky (see right). I remember myself being mildly curious as to why the knight had such feminine hair in that picture. And of course, it all comes together in the climax of the movie when Alice… well, you’ll just have to watch the move to get it. But I enjoyed the moment.

And I found I couldn’t divorce myself from being awash with references to Alice in Wonderland. It was, for me at least, wonderful. I find I can’t really imagine how the experience must have been to a viewer who isn’t as familiar with Alice in Wonderland or who’s only other major reference is Disney’s Alice in Wonderland.

Of course, throughout the movie, you are reminded that this is Tim Burton’s adaptation. The visual style and feel of it is all Tim Burton and also the changes to the mythos. He pulls elements of Through the Looking Glass and Wonderland into the one movie (I always considered these to be two separate “worlds” that Alice visits/dreams about). In fact I was expected to see something like the Snark appearing (from a later poem by Lewis Carroll), because there of this jumbling up of narrative elements. I found it quite clever to setup the Cards against the Chess Pieces but it also felt jarring to me (how can the White Queen of Chess be sister to the Queen of Hearts from a deck cards?). The White Queen is very different from how I remember her in the Through the Looking Glass but I like the symbolism, the representation of coldness, inaction and death, which brings something new out of the character for me. The caterpillar too is great adaptation, filling in for the “Supernatural Aid” of the heroine’s journey and representing the evolution of Alice into an adult. And of course, the story itself, which is more like a hero’s journey than Alice’s adventure. I don’t think a straight copy of the original would work as a gothic adult-oriented version somehow and I didn’t expect that from a Tim Burton movie either.

But not all is good in Underland. The Mad Hatter and his relationship to Alice really really bugged me. For me the Mad Hatter was never a friend of Alice, he is mad and if it wasn’t for the Alice curiosity and fearlessness in the original books, the Mad Hatter would have terrified me. To me, he is only safe because he hasn’t turned his attention to you. Otherwise he might murder you like he murdered time. But in the movie, the Mad Hatter upstages Alice all the time and his madness becomes a plot device and feels like the Mad Hatter is simply pretending to be mad to suit his purposes. It’s jarring. I know Tim Burton has a thing for Johnny Depp (who plays the Mad Hatter in the movie), but it goes too far here. It’s so bad that it actually diminishes the March Hare as a character and turns the Dormouse into annoy throwback to a Disney movie (I kept hoping someone would squish the little sucker). Alice should be the centre of this movie, but the Mad Hatter takes point and walks all over her. If you look at the other characters taken from the book, the Red Queen, Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee, the Knave and the Cheshire Cat, these are all really realised movie versions of these characters. For example Tweedle Dum and Dee’s fighting over Alice is really in keeping in how they appeared in the books.

While the battle and resolution in Wonderland I found satisfying, the return to the real world again was equally as week as the beginning, offering nothing more than a neat bookend to the story. While I get it’s all about woman empowerment, I was still unconvinced that she would have been able to turn down marriage and position (given the context of the period) and somehow manage to convince the owner of a company to take her on at 16 and go on what would seem some wild goose chase on the other side of the planet. But I guess it makes for a good denouncement, her sailing off to the sea, with the caterpillar-turned-butterfly fluttering nearby. I know the themes of the real world sections were reflected in the events and characters in Underland, I didn’t really care too much. I wanted Alice to go back to Underland.

So, in the end, I have to say I liked the movie. And, as a physical demonstration of appreciation, I’ll probably get this on DVD. :)

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