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Non-Review Review: Alice in Wonderland

I imagine Lewis Carroll’s iconic fantasy story poses quite the problem for anybody looking to bring it to the screen. Both Alice in Wonderland and Alice’s Adventures Through The Looking Glass essentially consist of a collection of vignettes, very loosely linked to each other. One minute you’re translating The Jabberwockey and the next you’re hearing the story of The Walrus and the Carpenter. I can’t imagine it would be particularly easy to produce a film following that sort of almost random structure. Perhaps that’s why Tim Burton’s wonderfully visual fantasy seems to draw perhaps more heavily from The Lord of the Rings than its own source material, which is a shame, as the director fantastically brings the magic of Wonderland to life. If only there were more of it.

Down the rabbit hole...

There’s a scene at the climax of the movie where Alice lists “six impossible things before breakfast”, rhyming off the items she’s seen since she arrived in Wonderland. The fundamental problem with this movie adaptation is that there really aren’t too many more – and there really should be. It seems that a lot of the more casual whimsy of the books has been stripped aside to make way for a conventional good-against-evil epic fantasy plot. Sure, there are blink-and-you-miss-it appearances from the dragonflies and the rocking-horse-fly (but no bread-and-butterfly, alas), and the talking tulips, but there’s very little focus on these wonderfully fantastic attributes – indeed, painting the Red Queen’s roses is relegated to flashback and there’s about five seconds of the iconic croquet game shown. And these sections bristle with energy and imagination, so it isn’t that they are excluded because they feel tired or trite.

Instead, the movie focuses on its own original plot. I mean original in the sense of “not in the original books”, but it’s actually the same plot used by every “grown up character returns to their imagination” story ever, from Return to Oz to Prince Caspian. Yes, evil has gained control – symbolising the threat of the adult world destroying the childhood imagination, a recurring theme in Burton’s work. Cue epic fantasy battles and chase sequences. Sure, the characters – the Red Queen, the White Queen and the Mad Hatter – are all the same ones we know from the story, but this is very much another attempt by Disney to create a viable copy of The Lord of the Rings: the Knave of Hearts is a randy backstabber; the Mad Hatter is a would-be revolutionary; Alice is foretold to slay the Jabberwocky using a magical sword.

This ignores the fact that magic of Lewis Carroll’s story came from the sheer passive nature of it all. Alice stumbled blindly into things and magic ensued. She wasn’t proactive or gung-ho (although was a little arrogant and selfish), but the story didn’t suffer from it. In fact, it made it all the more beautiful and wonderful, like a casual stroll through a dream rather than a “steal the sword and slay the monster” style fantasy outing.

I can understand that Tim Burton may not have wished to film a direct adaptation of a story we all already know (and which Disney has already adapted nearly perfectly, despite his vocal misgivings about the animated version), and the notion of an adult returning to their imaginary life is a fascinating one – but what’s the point in trying to be original if you’re just going to emulate another hugely successful film franchise?

The best sequences in the movie are the ones without any relation to the plot, the ones which allow Tim Burton to dwell on his own wonderfully warped imagination. The wonderful tumble down the rabbit hole or the initial trek through Wonderland. Burton is a fantastically visual director, even when working with weak material, and the movie certainly looks impressive.

There has been a lot of discussion about the 3D, as the film wasn’t originally shot for 3D. Thankfully, the fact that so little of the movie was actually sets and actors means that it really isn’t that noticeable. Obviously the rendering isn’t to the standard of Avatar, but it certainly isn’t a disappointment. The visual effects are stunning, probably the most technically impressive of Burton’s career. He certainly manages to evoke the mood of a fantastic realm under the thumb of an evil dictator quite well, and in many ways he does better with atmosphere than story or character.

The cast are fairly okay, but – let’s be honest – it isn’t a movie that really requires fantastic performances. Johnny Depp really doesn’t have too much to do as The Mad Hatter, despite being recast as a revolutionary, but he’s effective. Helena Bonham Carter does her best with The Red Queen, but doesn’t get the material necessary to create a true sense of pathos or tragedy around the villain. Anne Hathaway does quite well as the “airy fairy” White Queen, her body moving with the practiced ease of the aristocracy.

It’s a solid film, with incredible visuals. It’s just a shame that the movie seems so ridiculously clichéd and unoriginal. Whatever happened to the wonder of Wonderland?

3 Responses

  1. Hi Darren. I completely agree with your synopsis. The plot was seriously lacklustre. I’m starting to think though that Burton has lost his way.

    • Yep, I’d actually really like to see Burton do something even a little outside his comfort zone – like a biopic or a war film. Just to cleanse the pallet a little bit.

  2. What is Alice in Wonderland and Alice’s Adventures Through The Looking Glass about?

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