Tim Burton’s movies are always worth seeing at least once—he’s probably as great a maker of whimsical images as the movies have ever produced. But, as I once heard him freely admit in an interview, he wouldn’t know a good script if it bit him. He seems to evaluate a script on the basis of the strange tableaux & bizarre visual jokes it will allow him to create, & not on whether it tells a good story.
So when he lucks into a solid script, like, say, Ed Wood or Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, he can make a near-masterpiece, & when he has an inadequate script, like, say, Sleepy Hollow or Mars Attacks or the 2001 Planet of the Apes, he makes a scramble of great-looking pictures.
I have to admit I wasn’t optimistic about his new Alice in Wonderland, because as congenial as Burton’s gifts would clearly be to the visual side of the material, I had my doubts that what really makes the book wonderful—the sure-footed precision of Lewis Carroll’s comic touch—was within his range. & it appears that it wasn’t. This isn’t Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. On its own terms, however—as a wacky fairy-tale heroine saga—I enjoyed it far more than I expected to. This time, Burton’s dazzling imagination & a superb cast overcome a rather banal script.
Said script, by Linda Woolverton, is actually a sequel to the novel. Alice returns to Wonderland as a big girl, allowing the role to be played by leggy Mia Wasikowska, who’s fetching if not afflicted with an overabundance of energy & personality. The White Rabbit lures her back down the Rabbit Hole to help the old gang—The Mad Hatter, Dormouse, March Hare, Cheshire Cat, Dodo, et al—from the tyranny of the Red Queen (who actually has more in common with the Queen of Hearts than with her namesake in Through the Looking Glass). Alice assumes she’s dreaming, like in the old days.
Plenty is wrong, to my mind, about the film. The real-world framing scenes at the beginning & end feel halfhearted & flat, & the way that Woolverton literalizes the book’s nonsense words, like “Frabjous” & “Vorpal,” seems very reductive somehow.
I was also disappointed that Burton gave the landscapes an Avatar/Maxfield Parrish fantasy world look. There’s little in the book to suggest that, in terms of terrain, Wonderland is very different from the bucolic English countryside in which Alice starts out, & this quaintness adds to the bizarre effect of the talking animals & absurd, futile activities. The film’s story is shaped into a fable of female empowerment, commendable in itself, but a lesser vision than Lewis Carroll’s lighthearted existential mindfrig. Worse yet, it gives the movie what the book doesn’t & shouldn’t have—a plot.
The novel has little in the way of rising or developing action—Alice simply meets one curious character or set of characters after another, & what makes these encounters hilarious is that, against the conventional wisdom of children’s fiction, hardly any of them are nice. Almost everyone this polite, sensible little English girl meets is rude or obtuse, or even threatening. She’s not treated as special, like Harry Potter; the Wonderlanders seem, on the whole, uninterested or annoyed by her.
In the film, on the other hand, Alice is very much The Chosen One; for reasons not made clear (not to me, anyway) she’s needed to fight the “Jabberwocky,” here the Red Queen’s monstrous weapon of mass destruction. Again, much as this goes against the grain of the original material, it allows Burton to stage a fine skewed battle scene at the climax, & it’s quite invigorating to see a young woman used as a warrior-heroine without any big deal made about it (this effect is weakened a little in the cheesy you-go-girl final frame scene, though).
What really saves the film, however, is that most of the characters are smashingly realized, both by Burton’s visual panache & by the excellence of the acting. It may even be to the movie’s benefit that Alice isn’t all that vivid here; perhaps it sets off the masterly cast all the better. Johnny Depp, in makeup that resembles Elijah Wood as a zombie & shifting inexplicably from a nattering English accent to a Braveheart-style oratorical Scottish brogue, is fine as the Mad Hatter. Anne Hathaway is the goofy-prim White Queen, Crispin Glover gives an amazingly straightforward villainous performance as the Knave of Hearts, & the voice cast includes, to name a few, Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar, Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, Christopher Lee as the Jabberwocky, Michael Gough as the Dodo, & Stephen Fry, particularly marvelous, as the Cheshire Cat. The real standout, though, is the always reliable Helena Bonham Carter, who manages to be deeply funny yet still injects a bit of sadness into her tirades as the Red Queen.
Burton also shows us the other two monsters against which the hero of “Jabberwocky” is warned, the Bandersnatch (presumably of the Frumious variety) & the Jubjub Bird. I would have thought this a bad idea, but it works—Alice’s encounter with the Bandersnatch, a sort of hyena/bear/cheetah by way of Dr. Seuss, is one of the most satisfying scenes in the film. But then, within in his own realm Burton is as great a visual fantasist as Lewis Carroll’s illustrator John Tenniel, so why shouldn’t he create his own freaky visions of Wonderland’s fauna?