'Alice in Wonderland in Digital 3-D' clowns paying audience
Gee, Tim Burton, Krup You!
What’s the worse sin, turning the eccentric, introspective heroine of Lewis Carroll’s fantasia "Alice in Wonderland" into a colonialist entrepreneur, or de-centering the entire mythos of the source material in order to shoehorn Johnny Depp into star billing?
One can’t be sure. Why adapt "Alice" in this way, as a series of Cirque de Soleil freak-meets in a Wonderland – called “Underland” in the film – that resembles the alien cosmos inhabited by the Teletubbies more than anything else?
Tim Burton, you have so much to answer for.
Burton’s spent the past ten years making dreadful remakes of movies that were so good to start with they never needed to be remade: his "Planet of the Apes" is a self-serious, meandering bore; his "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," a McDonalds-y super-sizing of every nuance from Dahl’s novel, all shrieking stylization and frantic veneer.
For his redux of "Alice in Wonderland," he’s gone the "Return to Oz" route: an older Alice (Mia Wasikowska) returns to Wonderland and re-encounters several of the characters from Carroll’s books.
Because Johnny Depp is playing him, the Mad Hatter plays a central role. The role is hazily defined, but it involves him cakewalking in a Carrot Top fright wig and making lascivious goblin eyes at Alice.
Elsewhere in the plot, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) is a mean bitch and has to be stopped; her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) is an ethereal wisp and must prevail. Alice will bring this all about if she can only defeat the Jabberwocky.
Carter’s Red Queen (who is essentially just the Queen of Hearts we all know from the Disney version) is probably the highlight of the movie. Her massive, ballooning head is the one bit of CGI trickery that’s pleasing, and she’s a truly uncanny presence. But everyone knows bitches have more fun.
Wasikowska gets the shaft. She’s a hugely talented actress, as fans of HBO’s "In Treatment" know, but she’s given nothing to do. Alice is entirely besides the point in this movie. We’re asked to believe that since Alice can refuse the hand of the porky prig who’s wooing her, that she’s empowered.
The spectacle of Alice, alee in her galleon, off to conquer the Orient, is supposed to smooth over the weird misogyny of the rest of the film, which revolves around a powerful, bossy loudmouthed shrew being destroyed and replaced by a frail, passive, skinny lil’ thing. Is one matriarchy as good as another?
It might be a bit too harsh to say all the CGI is wretched. The Caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman) and the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) are actually kind of great. Everything else is bad, especially the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen, who recently did an adorable guest spot on 30 Rock – seriously, he’s adorable!).
The film’s worst sin of all is that it’s pretty damned boring. Outside of the Disney version, which captures only a mere sliver of the genius in Carroll’s books, Alice has proven itself un-adaptable to both small and large screens. It’s plotless; it’s about language and self-discovery and the terrifying gestalt of the body. Not really Hollywood material.
In Burton’s hands it becomes a creepy Freudian fever dream that culminates in a truly horrific clown dance by Depp’s Mad Hatter, and a talking bloodhound fretting over his "bitch and pups." Sigh.
Sean Bottai is a Tucson-based novelist and journalist. He teaches at the University of Arizona.