by Mel Valentin
Lewis Carroll’s 1865 children’s/fantasy novella, "Alice in Wonderland" has been adapted and re-adapted (and re-re-adapted) for stage, screen, and television more than twenty times (the earliest adaptation dates to 1951). Walt Disney adapted "Alice in Wonderland" as feature-length animated film in 1951. Now, more than a half a century later, a live-action/computer animated iteration arrives on 3D and IMAX screens thanks or, to be more accurate, no thanks to filmmaker Tim Burton ("Sweeney Todd," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Big Fish," "Planet of the Apes," "Sleepy Hollow," "Mars Attacks!," "Ed Wood," "Batman Returns," "Edward Scissorhands," "Batman"), a hefty production budget, and a team of computer animators. Despite the best visual effects that money can buy, "Alice in Wonderland" isn't visually impressive (far from it, actually). It's also, unsurprisingly, narratively clichéd.Collaborating with Linda Woolverton (The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast), Burton bookends Alice in Wonderland with scenes set in Victorian England as Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska), now 19, openly chafes at the arranged marriage to Hamish (Leo Bill), the clumsy, unattractive, conformist, aristocratic heir to the Ascot name and fortunate. Without her late father, Charles (Marton Csokas), to guide her, a rebellious Alice runs away from her engagement party when spots the White Rabbit, dressed in jacket and carrying a watch, fleeing into a rabbit hole. And down, down, down Alice goes into the rabbit hole (again).
"Whatever you do, don't go into that rabbit-hole."
At the bottom of the rabbit hole, Alice finds a table with a key, a potion (“Drink Me”), and several doors to choose from. The key works on only one door, but it’s so small, Alice can’t get through. As in Lewis Carroll’s novella, the potion shrinks Alice down to six inches. She walks into Wonderland (actually Underland), a world crammed with bright colors and talking plants and animals. Spotted by a handful of Wonderland’s denizens, including Absalon (voiced by Alan Rickman), the talking, smoking caterpillar, Alice is told she’s THE Alice, back after 12 years in the real world. Alice doesn’t remember her earlier visit, but soon discovers the truth about Wonderland: the red-haired, bulbous headed Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), runs Wonderland as a dictatorship, executing anyone who displeases her with the usual “off with his/her head.”
Taking a page (actually, the whole book) from Joseph Campbell’s seminal study in comparative mythology, Hero with a Thousand Faces (a.k.a., the “Hero’s Journey”), Alice learns she’s prophesized to fight and defeat the Red Queen’s champion, the dragon-like Jabberwocky. True to the Hero’s Journey, she rejects the call to action (as she does for another 80-90 minutes). An attack by Stayne – Knave of Hearts (head of Crispin Glover), the Red Queen’s chief enforcer, separates Alice from her new companions. Alice quickly finds a willing ally in the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, in an orange fright wig, white-face, and green contact lenses). Less, far less, the character familiar to readers of Carroll’s novella, this Hatter feigns his madness to cover his opposition to the Red Queen’s rule and his participation in an underground resistance led by the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the Red Queen’s benevolent younger sister and Wonderland’s rightful ruler.
Burton and Woolverton cherry pick characters and incidents from Carroll’s novella (and the sequel, Through the Looking Glass). Additional characters include Tweedledee / Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), the aforementioned White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse), and Bayard (Timothy Spall), a bloodhound in the Red Queen’s service. Their importance, however, varies, depending on what they can contribute to Alice’s heroic journey, one of the dullest, most uninspired, most derivative put on film since, well, every Harry Potter film and the Lord of the Rings trilogy. The Mad Hatter gets more screen time than the other characters (an obviously beefed-up role for Depp), but he’s almost as superfluous. Depp’s shifting accents, meant to reflect the Hatter’s mercurial nature, don’t help either.
As dull, uninspired, and derivative as Alice’s journey to defeat the Red Queen and restore the White Queen’s presumably benevolent rule might be, it’s worsened by Burton and Woolverton’s decision to graft a girl-power/empowerment arc to Alice’s character. Alice doesn’t have a traditional character arc in Carroll’s work, she has a series of bizarre misadventures, each one more surreal than the last. That might have made for a “flat” (as opposed to “well-rounded”) character, but it also allowed readers to indulge in Carroll’s word play and world building. Paradoxically, Burton’s Alice is still passive, reacting and following rather than acting and leading (since she continually rejects the call to become the White Queen’s champion).Setting aside whether Burton and Woolverton misunderstood and misinterpreted Carroll’s Alice, this new iteration overstuffs every frame with computer animated backgrounds, objects, and animals. The actors do what they can with the inherent limitations of working in front of greenscreens, but they often look pasted in to unfinished-looking, computer-animated surroundings. Some characters, like the Knave of Hearts and Tweedledee / Tweedledum, are a combination of CG bodies and live-action heads. Frankly, they look awful. It’s made all the worse when seen in 3D ("Alice in Wonderland" was converted from 2D to 3D in post-production). Burton didn’t design "Alice in Wonderland" for depth and, thus, an immersive experience, and it shows in every frame.
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originally posted: 03/05/10 04:00:00