Saturday, August 7, 2010

"If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense." - A Review of Alice in Wonderland

Every time I heard Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland described by a friend or acquaintance, I heard the word "weird." Upon its release in theaters, Facebook lit up with comments about the "bizarre" film adaption of Lewis Carroll's classic. Of course, I had seen many of the previews, so I had already accepted the fact that the film would have little or nothing to do with the actual book, but the weirdness intrigued me. After all, even if the filmmaker combined Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Saw There, there probably wouldn't be enough to create a traditional plot/story arc. My hope, then, was that Tim Burton got the mood right - the feel of this truly twisted story, the beautiful "unlogicalness" of it.

This week I finally got to watch Tim Burton's latest...all by myself. I tried to keep my expectations low, since that attitude toward movie watching has paid off recently. Unfortunately, Mr. Burton let me down, and I'm having a difficult time forgiving him this trespass against one of my favorite childhood books.

The first sin was one that has become quite common in Hollywood. Why do filmmakers feel compelled to turn every female literary character into a put upon feminist? We are introduced to Alice as a free-thinking, imaginative child whose one kindred spirit is her father. So you can guess what happens to him. Next we see Alice as a young woman about to be married off to a creepy, young aristocrat who was a blatant rip-off of Spalding from Caddyshack. But Alice won't be tied down, no matter what her mother and sister say or expect. She's going to be a rule-breaker - she's going to change the matchmaking traditions of her generation (cue kicky Joan Jett song.) Seriously? Is Tim Burton jealous of Lewis Carroll's legacy of creepiness that predates his own, and now he's punishing him by completely eviscerating the childlike wonder of his character, Alice? I'm so disappointed.

Then there's the mish-mash of details from the two stories that are shuffled together into a completely new plot that is one part The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe, one part Labyrinth, and about twenty parts special effects. What happened to the chess game aspect of Through the Looking Glass? There is only a brief nod to that detail when the final battle scene is set on a checkerboard. Plus, I always thought that Alice's entrance through the mirror was far more intriguing than her initial entry via rabbit hole. Don't misunderstand me. I realized that the story would be new, but surely there was a way to create a story that felt like Carroll. Look to the Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy film adaption. It had very little to do with the books, and yet they managed to maintain the gist of the message and the essence and quirkiness of the characters....which leads me to my next (and biggest) complaint.

Everybody kept saying how weird this film is. I would argue, in fact, that it isn't nearly weird enough. Obviously, those people never actually read the book, which is full of delightful conundrums, tongue-twisting rhymes, and jumps in logic and story that boggle the mind in a way that just feels right...especially to a child. At the age of ten (or whenever I read this book), I so got the writing, the kookiness, the meandering acid trip of it all. And, honestly, this is the area in which I thought Burton would excel. Nobody does creepy and bizarre like him, and yet he appears to have sold out to Disney or whomever suggested that he bastardize such a great book into this extremely accessible movie. Because, let's face it, Alice in Wonderland (the book) is anything but accessible or mainstream.

Lest I sound unfair, I will admit that the film on its own is entertaining. It is well-paced, and the acting is decent. Burton relied on his usual cast, and they didn't let him down (even if Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter did feel a bit like a reheated leftover of his Willy Wonka performance.) I am certain that viewers who never read any Lewis Carroll probably enjoyed it immensely, especially if they are addicted to special effects and elaborate wigs and makeup.

The question I am left with is, Is it enough to be entertaining? Doesn't the filmmaker owe something to the author? Carroll created a masterpiece that used childlike logic to explore very adult injustices and to point out the ridiculous in our world, and yet, the ridiculous is what is missing in the film. There is plenty of silliness and slapstick, but it all appears to be there for no other reason than to solicit a laugh from the audience. About the only thing separating this film from other Disney pap is its lack of a power love ballad. Hey, maybe Burton could give Celine Dion a call, and she could hook him up. Maybe Alice could become the next Disney Princess.

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