Sunday 14 March 2010
Lewis Carroll’s Alice books were among my favourites when I was growing up. Tim Burton has long been one of my favourite movie directors. I simply love his visual style, his playful gothic imagination, peppered with touches of dark humour, fully demonstrated in movies like Edward Scissorhands- which made me cry -, the early Batman, The Nightmare before Christmas, Sleepy Hollow and the Corpse Bride. Now add to the mixture two of my favourite actors- Johnny Depp, a long-time collaborator with Burton, and Helena Bonham-Carter, his wife, and we have Alice in Wonderland, his new fantasy adventure in 3D. What could possibly go wrong?
Well, quite a lot actually. This is not a bad movie; it’s just not a very good one. Even the 3D effects are paradoxically 2D, both there and somehow not there. I don’t want to downplay it too much; it’s certainly visually lavish at points. Depp is the maddest Hatter one is ever likely to see, and Bonham-Carter the most grotesque looking Red Queen, but the movie itself hops, skips never quite managing to jump.
What it suffers from principally is a rather flat, two-dimensional script, which at the end left me wondering if I was in Tolkien’s Middle-Earth or C. S. Lewis’ Narnia. Perhaps worst of all Burton has been tamed. In a word, he has been Disneyfied. There was even a rather crass piece of product placement: the castle of the White Queen, played by Anne Hathaway, is a reproduction of the Disney logo. Alice herself was played by Mia Wasikowska, not a bad performance, again just not a very good one.
The story itself is quickly told. Alice, now nineteen years old, is being manoeuvred into a marriage with one Hamish Ascot, the son of a lord, a kind of caricature of the foppish and chinless English aristocrat that I feel sure plays well to American audiences. In the middle of a garden party, watched by the guests, he proposes. Alice, unable to make up her mind, runs off, in pursuit of a large white Rabbit, which only she can see. At the base of a tree she falls down a large hole. There she is, in Underland, not Wonderland, as she wrongly thought of it all those years before. No matter; for she perceives of both places through the medium of a dream, refusing for a long time even to believe in as many as one impossible thing before breakfast!
This was the part of the movie that I enjoyed the most, the point where I was reintroduced to all of those magical characters that so haunted my imagination when I was no older than the original Alice: besides Depp’s psychedelic Mad Hatter there is the White Rabbit, voiced by Michael Sheen, the March Hare, voiced by Paul Whitehouse, the hookah-smoking Caterpillar, with the voice of Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, as the grinning and vanishing Cheshire Cat, and Tweedledee and Tweedledum sharing the voice of Matt Lucas. They are the good. As for the bad Crispin Glover is a convincingly sinister Knave of Hearts and Bonham-Carter, with a huge head and tiny body, plays the Red Queen wonderfully as a kind of petulant two-year-old, forever demanding the removal of heads!
But once adjusted to the spectacle a certain tedium sets in; the script kicks in as a predictable and tiresome quest story. Wonderland, perhaps in keeping with the mood of our times, has lost its sparkle, becoming a kind of post-apocalyptic world, dominated by the tyrannical Red Queen, in the way that the White Witch dominated Narnia.
The Hatter’s Tea Party is still underway, but in a devastated landscape, with the man himself presiding over a table of ruinous crockery that might have been appreciated by Dickens’ Miss Hathaway! Alice, still refusing to believe, is told that the only way to restore the old order, the rule of the White Queen, is for her to find the Vorpal Sword and kill the monstrous Jabberwocky- voiced by Christopher Lee -, which serves the Red Queen in the fashion of a weapon of mass destruction.
If you’ve reached this point I’m sure you have already guessed the outcome: she finds the sword, dons the armour and slays the Jabberwocky, all against a background of a Middle-Earth-style battle between the armies of the Red and White Queens. Not only has good triumphed over bad but Alice has earned the right not to marry the chinless wonder!
What more is there to be said? It’s a predictable movie shaped around an unimaginative script. Though not entirely without magic and a degree of charm, it’s all packaged in a rather bloodless and etiolated form, not what I expect from Burton, not what I expect from Wonderland, some smoke but no mirrors.
There is something else; some places truly are closed forever. Alice, the grown up Alice, was right; the inhabitants of Wonderland are such stuff as dreams are made on. She could never have returned as an adult; Carroll would never have imagined such a thing. His world was a world of eternal childhood. The one perfect moment for me in Alice in Wonderland, all too brief, is when we see a flashback to little Alice in the original Wonderland. Thus it should have remained.