Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland by Tim Burton

When deciding whether or not to see Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland in 3-D, I had to ask myself two important questions.

First; am I ten years old?

And second; “3-dimensional” movies—again? Really? That’s technically 3 questions but whatever, I saw it in the customary two dimensions, which worked pretty well. Actually, I didn’t even notice the missing dimension.

The dimensions Burton brings to Alice in Wonderland won’t make you duck down in your seat. They’ll make you ask, again, if visual brilliance plus macabre, comic, and romantic qualities can all abound in the same story and still make something you care about afterwards. This time the answer is not really, though in places the film is moving in ways one would never expect it to be.

The action takes place years after the events of the book, with Alice in late adolescence, fuzzily figured as a proto-hippie for refusing to wear corset or stockings. The Mad Hatter asks of Alice the essential question of adolescence, “Why are you always too tall or too small?” but considering she’s going to a party where she is, much to her surprise, to be engaged, shouldn’t Alice be moving on to more volatile personal issues? She knows she doesn’t want to marry just yet. A reasonable sentiment, no? Burton claimed he wasn’t interested in another depiction of Alice as, to use his term, “meh,” but she’s not exactly a complex character in this version of her nether-life.

Of all the casting choices here that feel wonderfully inevitable—Helena Bonham-Carter as a petulant queen with a vast head, for one—the reliably great Crispin Glover (as the Red Queen’s consort Stayne) is literally half-wasted, with his one-eyed head stuck on a body rendered in CGI—or something—for the sole purpose of making him appear taller. Lurching around like a collapsed sandwich board, Glover looks right as the commander of the Red Queen’s playing-card troops, but the conceit draws attention to the artifice. Worse, it’s a waste of a great physical actor’s gifts.

Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter goes sailing over the top of course, but you knew he was going to do that. What’s more poignant is how his asexual, shattered Hatter feels like a Capt. Jack Sparrow who’s lost much more than his mind—he’s lost his nerve. While his “mad-cap” mien is predictable, his crushed soul is his truly insane characteristic, and it sticks with you.

By abrupt turns angry, wheedling, and bereft, this is a haunted Hatter. He’s trapped with his fellow tea partiers, the aggressively manic March Hare and the vicious, laboriously cute Dormouse (squeaking cheekily and stabbing his enemies blind with a pin-sword). The White Queen wasn’t the Hatter’s friend, lover or leader and they have no obvious or implied connection, only an allegiance the film insists on. Adrift in a dinghy role, Depp’s Hatter is least believable when swinging the Vorpal Sword in the climactic fight. But battling Glover in his prison/millinery, wielding only a dressing-dummy, powder-puff, and perfume atomizer, Depp becomes Edward Scissorhands again for a thrilling moment, our post-punk hero, fey and noble and victorious for all the sad boys and girls who loved him from jump street. It’s a delight, and in tone if not sequence it’s the scene the movie should end on.

Instead, at the end of his Alice, Burton makes a daring play for the One Zany Moment the kids will like, and the resulting image is so unsettling it basically causes his movie to explode.

For an astonishingly tone-deaf few seconds we’re forced to watch Depp’s Mad Hatter do some CGI-enhanced flailing called “Fuckerpomp” or “Frickenpoop” or something. Suddenly we’re flung out of Wonderland and straight 2 da streets to watch J-Depp breakdance. We need to see Johnny Depp breakdancing like we need to see James Mason doing it doggy-style, or Kate Bush on American Idol. It’s one of the most jarring moment in the film by far, the visual equivalent of nibbling tinfoil.

In the books, Wonderland is where Alice jousts with the tyranny of adults over children through Wonderland’s deranged ceremonies and absurd orthodoxies; caucus-races in which all competitors drown, monstrous babies bullying their royal parents, the arcania of card games, riddles, croquet, tea ceremonies, etiquette—and the mortifying, if not mortal, consequences of misunderstanding the rules. By pushing the rules of Lewis Carroll’s fantastical world, Burton pushes the shadows to the fore and the tension way up, but loses its internal cohesion.


About Mienda

Somerville, Brooklyn/Manhattan, Chicago, Glasgow, Cambridge, Philadelphia, here right now.
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