Build Your Own Review: Alice in Wonderland

Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

Ordinarily, I like to offer my “Build Your Own Reviews” for films that seem divisive, or those for which multiple interpretations and responses might seem equally justifiable. I thought Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland might be one of those. Writing these posts requires me to think doubly about good points and bad points, opposing views and possibilities. They can help me to equivocate about films that don’t easily accommodate qualitative assessments. Having just seen the film, my initial response is that it is an unmitigated disaster. It’s only interest lies in the fascinating sight of a film making all the wrong decisions, doggedly pursuing a fruitless, witless pathway through classic source material, seeking to reimagine but succeeding only in mishandling it. I don’t deploy such criticism flippantly, but I truly believe this is as wrongheaded an adaptation of Alice as Stephen Norrington’s excremental film of The League of Extraordinary Gentleman, previously the high watermark of squandered opportunities. But it’s not as if we needed a new version of Lewis Carroll’s books. There are plenty of good ones to choose from, whether you’re on the side of Jonathan Miller, Cecil Hepworth, Walt Disney, or Jan Svankmajer (my enduring personal favourite). Accordingly, what follows is not the usual weighing up of sides. It’s more of a non-linear list of insults, but nestled within are a few forced admissions of highpoints and redeeming features, minor reliefs from the stultifying turd of it all. See if you can spot them, and choose your dosage of vitriol from my various suggestions. Where possible, I have interspersed my own views with those of critics more amenable to the film. If you also feel strongly about this film, post a comment in the section below this post and I’ll add it to this list:

  • Burton’s Alice is not as good as [insert favourite adaptation of Alice here], which preserved the book’s [insert favourite characteristic of the book here].
  • I remember Lewis Carroll’s heroine being a petulant, stroppy little girl. You may remember her a little differently, but at least she was a strong-willed child who observed the weirdness of Wonderland with detached curiosity. She didn’t learn lessons, she didn’t have to dig deep to find her inner strength, she didn’t become a mighty warrior fighting for the forces of good. She just wandered past a bunch of random stuff, got a bit annoyed with it and went home for tea unchanged by her experience. It was a supreme statement about the resilience of the childish imagination. By transforming the protagonist into a predestined “chosen one”, Burton’s film makes it into just another fantasy quest.

If you could ask Lewis Carroll to choose between Disney’s saccharine Alice in Wonderland cartoon of 1951 and Tim Burton’s new Gothic monsterpiece, you feel the author would pick the nightmarish vision over the giant teacup rides in theme parks. While Burton has forsaken Carroll’s narrative for a postmodern mash-up of Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass and the Jabberwocky poem, his hallucinogenic humour stays true to the original… The kooky costumes and creepy fantasy landscapes have gestated brilliantly from Burton’s drawing board into a 3-D world with touches of the Avatar forest about it, although most of the film would work just as well in two dimensions. (Kate Muir, The Times)

  • The 3-D format suits a reworking of Alice in Wonderland because it finds a visual metaphor for the plummeting into a fantasy world where images and characters refuse to be bound by rules of behaviour or representation. But it’s also a tacky gimmick. It insults the viewer’s intelligence by assuming that we want film to be as much like sensory experience as possible: do these people never stop to think that we might love cinema because it is a different experience, a special window on a fictional space, into which our imaginations are already diving, without it having to prod outwards towards our eyes?

In terms of sets, costumes and characters, Alice is a more rewarding film than the recent Avatar, where the incomprehensible budget was tempered by the very average imagination and plot. Alice, of course, even when made needlessly dark for this adaptation, is fuelled by one of the most outlandish imagination in Victorian fiction and it’s terrific to see this rendered by the latest technology on the highest resolution – IMAX – format possible. (Alex Fitch, Electric Sheep)

    • Johnny Depp’s mavericky, overmannered and over-designed Mad Hatter embodies only the most photogenic, family-friendly approximations of derangement. There’s simply too much attention paid to his appearance, too much precision in the makeup for it to convey any of the non sequiturs, inconsistencies and disorderings of the discontinuous mind. He’s not insane. He’s just a bit melancholy, his quirks explained away by a sentimental backstory. Mia Wasikowska looks the part – she has a cheeky face that seems to harbour a little mischief, but if there’s any toughness in there, it’s hardly allowed to blossom by the script. She is curiously quiet and timid, with little chance to take charge of her dream. We’re told that this is all a product of her imagination, but it’s clearly the product of a bunch of Macs in an air-conditioned edit suite.
    • On that note, I might ask: Who dreams in CGI? Does anybody dream in CGI? I don’t know anybody who dreams in CGI, and until somebody can provide evidence that anybody’s dreams resemble CGI in any way, shape or form, I’ll keep believing that CGI is inappropriate for conjuring dream-worlds. It’s a feeble logic that says that dreamlike environs can be rendered with clicks of mouse and software stylings. Our dreams or not otherworldly, but sideways glances at skewed versions of the everyday, mismatched patchworks of the real. The effects of dreams cannot be simulated with such precision, because our dreams are partial, hazy, crumbly, jumpcutting tangles of ellipses and half-sense. Disney has long tried to sell our dreams back to us. Often they charm us into buying. Here, the price is too steep, the goods too rich.
    • When Helena Bonham-Carter is the funniest thing in your film, you have a problem. But funny she is, deliciously capricious, massive-skulled and murderous. The Queen of Hearts was always the terrifying core of the Carroll story, a monstrous monarch with execution on her lips at a moment’s notice, but it’s a shame that the battle for Wonderland is just a squabble between two nutty sisters. Ending the film with regime change is one of the most distressing impositions perpetrated against the unruly source material.

    Burton’s Wonderland is not cosy in the slightest. It’s a gothic netherworld inhabited by shape-shifting and threatening creatures. Initially, at least, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), with his clown face and shock of orange hair, seems genuinely deranged. Tweedledum and Tweedledee (delightfully played by Matt Lucas) look as if they might have slipped out of some avant-garde Czech cartoon. The visual style, pitched somewhere between animation and live action, is both creepy and ingenious. (Geoffrey Macnab, The Independent)

    • Tim Burton’s visual style is hackneyed, self-replicating and predictable. What was once the perspective of an outsider to the Hollywood system, locating the freakish within the popular, is now firmly embedded in the formulae of the mainstream. He is back in the fold of sentimentalising outsiderdom, mocking ugliness and confirming the importance of finding-one’s-inner-strength-and-using-it-to-master-not-overturn-the-status-quo. Burton’s Alice doesn’t subvert the threats of Wonderland by ignoring or refusing to be cowed by them: she battles, slays and takes charge, finally applying these life lessons to her full assimilation into a venture-capitalist lifestyle where the first thing she does is head for another “exotic” land of wonder and treasure, China.
    • Danny Elfman needs to stop cannibalising his own work. Or at least he needs to cannibalise appropriately. The addition of quotations from his superhero scores (Spider-Man, Batman) only serves to underscore the bloating of the story to needlessly epic proportions. A musical surge accompanies every plot development, or when a character “learns” something. If an excessively instructive score were not damaging enough, there’s a head-in-hands bit of funky music that sounds like a guest being played to his seat on a late-night talkshow when the Mad Hatter does his body-popping victory dance, and it all ends with a screechy power-ballad by Avril Lavigne. Say no more.

    Add to FacebookAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Yahoo BuzzAdd to Newsvine

    16 thoughts on “Build Your Own Review: Alice in Wonderland

    1. Ugh, well now you’ve gone and put me off it altogether, Dan. I’m also not terribly fond of gimmicky usage of 3D animation. The trailer had already given me a sense of the hyper-saturated colours and Johnny Depp’s overacting, so I think I’ll skip the cinemas and rent it some day. I’d rather watch a 2D anime version of Alice. What they lack in budget, they make up for in creativity.

    2. Hi Dan,

      Enjoyed your review and, having been curious enough to see the film at the weekend, I have to agree with most of your points. I particularly liked the point that Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter ’embodies only the most photogenic, family-friendly approximations of derangement’. Spot on. Seemed like a mild, uninteresting, airbrushed and vastly toned-down version of Heath Ledger’s Joker to me – cosmetic oddness. But I guess his interest has long been in giving these outwardly strange or ugly characters loveable, friendly, (supposedly) childlike or jokey natures lest they bother the children in the audience too much. Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice spring to mind.

      Do you think Tim Burton is still considered a ‘dark’ and slightly subversive filmmaker? If he is, I struggle to see why. Here there were the usual gothic decorative flourishes and gnarled trees by the thousand. I’ve enjoyed his films in the past but I do feel he treats cinema-going kids with kid gloves too much; he seems unwilling to let any of that surface darkness penetrate the emotional core of his films. Handcuffed by the studio or unwilling to let loose? There’s nothing wrong with being lightweight but every time I see one of his films these days I think of the old cliche ‘mutton dressed as lamb’. The few moments of eye-gouging and heads being lopped off predictably elicited the greatest response from the kids in the cinema sat near me. When’s he going to push the boat out and *actually* scare kids witless? That would probably be a Tim Burton film worth seeing.

    3. Thanks, Stu. I’m officially fed up of Tim Burton now. It’s been ages since he’s deserved his quirky outsider reputation. You just can’t make this kind of film with these kinds of budgets and still claim that cache. I liked Ed Wood, even though it soft-pedalled and romanticised the troubled life of its protagonist, and I liked Mars Attacks! (not sure if I’d feel the same way watching it today) because it took those tens of millions of dollars and deliberately pissed them up the wall on an unacceptable product – he even killed off the big-name star (Jack Nicholson) twice, just to prove a point, and the Earth is inherited by the supporting cast. If he’s the weirdest guy in the mainstream, it’s only because the mainstream has become so stultifyingly conservative. If he were to opt out of his current career and go and make something rough and cheap, he’d surely be unmasked – he’s marketed as some crazy genius, but crazy is relative. In the avant-garde sector, he’d find that fertile imaginations are plentiful. Rant much?

      Nice comparison with Joker and Hatter, although I did think Ledger hit a seam of genuine unpredictability at times. Or maybe that’s something we now project onto his performance from what we know of his offscreen troubles with death and stuff like that.

    4. Pingback: Jabberwocky (Jan Švankmajer, 1971) « Spectacular Attractions

    5. While I fully agree with almost all of your points (nobody dreams in CGI, that’s one I haven’t heard yet, very good!), I actually enjoyed the film as a kind of Alice-Remix up until the last third with the sentimental hatter, and the strangely linear faceoff that went exactly against the irreverence of the original.

      I think the best thing about the film is the visualisation of parts of the Jabberwocky Poem. I liked seeing the bandersnatch, jubjub bird and finally the Jabberwocky (loosely based on Teniels original illustration that appears on the scroll in the film). Now, why didn’t they put some mimsy borogoves and slithy toves in there?

      • I think you’ve put your finger on what irritated me about the film, Alex – yes, they visualise Jabberwocky, but in a very literal way. It’s a big dragon, and a warrior in armour has to slay it. There’s nothing nonsensical about it; the film adapts none of the form and oddity of the verse. Maybe a bunch of animators were set the task of creating a 3D CG slithy tove and just gave up. It didn’t compute.

    6. Pingback: Drei Bemerkungen zu Alice in Wonderland « Real Virtuality

    7. Pingback: Six Things I Like About Rango | Spectacular Attractions

    8. Pingback: Picture of the Week #79: Gallery 1988′s Crazy 4 Cult Show | Spectacular Attractions

    9. Pingback: Digesting Hugo | Spectacular Attractions

    Leave a Reply

    Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

    You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

    Facebook photo

    You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

    Connecting to %s