It seems to have become fashionable to bash Tim Burton. The thing is, I can even see why. A lot of his movies have the same look. The same feel, to be more precise. Dark, misshapen. With pale, thin goth girls and way too much eyeliner. And Helena Bonham Carter. The man can’t do anything right anymore, at least in the eyes of some critics.
Now, the thing is this. I have complained about Tim Burton’s movies too, in the past. Not so much about the goth chicks, for although I don’t regard myself as in the least gothophile, I can see why the look might be perceived as pretty. And I don’t mind the darkness, and the odd costumes. I do, however, think that there is such a thing as too much Helena Bonham Carter. Or Johnny Depp, for that matter. Both are wonderful actors. I adored Depp in everything I’ve ever seen him in. I wish I could say the same for Mrs. Bonham Carter, but then again, no one could have saved Bellatrix Lestrange with that script. It’s just that they seem to be in every single movie Tim Burton has ever made (in the last ten years).
To come to a point: yes, Tim Burton uses the same actors over and over and over again and yes, all his movies look vaguely alike, but I can’t honestly say that I mind.
Now, about Alice in Wonderland:
Mia Wasikowska, who plays the titular character of Alice, is a delight to watch. I don’t subscribe much to the feminist need for a strong female hero, frankly I couldn’t care less about the sex of any given protagonist, but if the feminists wanted a strong heroine, then Tim Burton has given them one. Her Alice goes from being a suppressed, pale Victorian doll-child to being an emancipated, clever woman. One that her male contemporaries need to watch out for. I like that. When Alice finds her place in the world towards the end of the movie, one cannot help but feel proud of her.
Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is a slightly different matter. I like Johnny Depp. I really do. And as a whole I like the Hatter. He’s funny and vulnerable at the same time. And mad beyond a doubt. Depp says that he wanted the Hatter, his appearance as well as the way he’s played, to change according to the character’s current emotional state. Interesting approach, I say, and one that mostly works. One only wonders why the angry version is a Scottish man with a very, very deep voice and really, really bad shiners.
The rest of the cast is also good, with one exception which I’ll mention in a second, that is. I love Timothy Spall as the voice of the bloodhound Bayard Hamar and of course the same goes for Alan Rickman. With a voice like Alan Rickman’s you have to be a voice actor, I think there’s a law about that somewhere. If there isn’t, there should be. Seeing Lindsay Duncan, or any cast member of Rome for that matter, is always worth going to the cinema for. Crispin Clover, who plays Ilosovic Stayne, the knave of hearts, is simply scary. Nice CGI too. One person that I’d like to praise above all others, however, is Stephen Fry, who voices the Cheshire Cat. The combination of the incessantly grinning, evaporating cat and Fry’s deep, inherently British voice, is pure genius. And I’m not just saying this because I’m a cat person. Cats are playful and aloof and never show how they really feel and that’s what the cat looks and sounds like.
Now you’re wondering whom I didn’t like. Right? Well, here’s a hint: She plays a queen and her first name isn’t Helena.
Anne Hathaway as the White Queen is just weird. There’s no other word for it. I read what Miss Hathaway has to say in defence of her acting, and while it sheds a little light on all the weirdness, it’s not nearly enough to justify this mess. The queen floats along in a cloud of white fabric and serene smiles. Most of the time, anyway, for in the first scene we see her in she seems to only be waiting for a chance to throw off all this pretense and be just a normal eerily dark-eyebrowed gal. And that would be an okay way to portray the character if this change occurred at least one more time in the movie. But it doesn’t. Even when the White Queen is alone with her trusted champion Alice she does not drop the disguise again, not even for a second. Which begs the question whether that first, admittedly funny, change didn’t just occur for the sake of comic relief. All I can say is that the character just doesn’t make sense.
Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is not supposed to be a sequel or a re-imagining, yet it is not a faithful adaptation of the original books either. I’ll not pretend that I read either of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, but as I understand it they are more loosely strung together events and encounters than coherent narratives. The scriptwriter, Linda Woolverton (responsible for, among others, The Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King) has taken many of these events and characters and woven them into a story that is somewhere between epic fantasy and fairy tale. The battle at the end, heavily criticised in many reviews, is taken straight from a fantasy epic. Armies clash and above all out hero fights a fearsome dragon. The dragon, by the way, is voiced by Christopher Lee, which is always a bonus, and looks superb, which is rare. And where I feared a twenty minute long, incoherent shaky cam sequence, the battle is actually well choreographed and brief. Mind you, if you think that Alice in Wonderland features the most brilliant fight sequence ever imagined on celluloid you’re very, very wrong. But it’s not bad, either. It definitely doesn’t deserve all the bad press it’s been getting. And let me ask you this: didn’t you always want to see Johnny Depp fight with a broadsword?
The central story of Alice, slowly transforming from a shy, insecure girl to someone who knows what she wants and that she’ll have to stand up and fight for herself to get it, reminds me of many a fairytale. The hero needs to slay a dragon. Two queens, red and white, evil and good, fight over a magic kingdom. All fairytale elements. Maybe I’m taking the easy way out here. There certainly are much more sinister interpretations for the basic story of the movie. Interpretations involving war and torture and murder, but I for one didn’t see it that way.
All in all Alice in Wonderland was a good movie. Not one of the very great ones, far from it, but fun and entertaining and fast-paced. Tim Burton has given us many wonderful movies and while Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow and Beetlejuice shall remain my favourites for a while longer, this is certainly no Planet of the Apes.
Tim Burton has made many good movies, and some of those movies I deeply love. Beetlejuice is his absolute masterpiece, and Sleepy Hollow is a brilliant and deeply underrated film. He is clearly talented as a filmmaker, or at least as a visual artist.
Unfortunately, all he does is remake the same film. Same actors, same makeup, same look, same thinly-disguised moral: imagination is good. And you know what? He no longer has to put in any effort. I agree that imagination is important (anyone who knows my love of William Blake’s work would agree), but imagination should be wild and free and subversive. But Tim Burton has stuffed and mounted his imagination. A unicorn in a zoo isn’t much of a unicorn. Alice in Wonderland isn’t just a unicorn in a zoo, it’s the toy unicorn you buy at the gift shop that says “Imagination is good!” when you pull on a little string.
That Lewis Carroll’s work cannot be faithfully adapted to the screen should be obvious. It’s not a matter of technology, but of the nature of the work itself: it is primarily a linguistic fantasy that can exist only in words. Translating it to a movie must, by definition, rob it of much of its power and charm.
But perhaps it can be done. After all, doesn’t the cinematic medium have just as much potential for strange tricks and odd approaches? Couldn’t you translate the playful madness of the novels to something visually equivalent? It wouldn’t be faithful to the form, but it would be faithful to the spirit: a strange trip of movie that would leave us entranced and amazed.
Unfortunately, Tim Burton has not made that movie. What he has done instead is take Alice in Wonderland and cram all of its magic and beauty into a cliché-ridden Journey of the Hero story directly out Joseph Campbell for Dummies. Instead of an insane trip down the stranger parts of the imagination we get Alice as the Chosen One with the Magic Sword who must defeat the Evil Dragon. And of course, in typical fashion, she has to spend most of the film having doubts about it, so that there’s more story and we can be bored a little longer. (Making characters endlessly doubt their position as the Chosen Ones – instead of giving them actual challenges to overcome – is a typical syndrome of modern screenwriters who do not understand the epic. They added that plot to Narnia, and even worse, to The Lord of the Rings.)
The characters moving through this joke of a plot don’t have much of a personality. Oh, some of them are loud and obnoxious, but there is very little imagination at work here. The actors are all fine, but the script’s woeful attempts to add “psychological depth” to these creatures makes them entirely uninteresting. Even the Hatter, played by the astoundingly talented Johnny Depp, is more hysterical than deep. And why is he Scottish when he’s angry? I know all Scottish people are full of rage (and haggis and deep-fried Mars bars and every other cliché we can find), but please. And let’s not even get into the horror that was the White Queen. Mia Wasikowska is really good as Alice, and could probably be excellent in a well-written part. Unfortunately for her, Alice is less than a cypher, so the role only works due to the actess’s charm. Speaking of charm, Stephen Fry’s voice acting is beautiful. Shame it doesn’t fit the character design in the slightest.
The film wants to have a message. And I really mean “a message” in that cliché, in-your-face kind of way. To achieve this, it has a frame story in which Alice has to decide whether to get married to an obnoxious Englishman. As expected, her hero’s arc in Wonderland teaches her that she should go against society’s wishes and become a merchant’s apprentice. The problem with the England sequence is that it is massively overacted and unrealistic. Now, perhaps the filmmakers were trying to point out that England is as strange as Wonderland… but if they were, they should have said so. (Watch Shaun of the Dead for how to do this kind of thing in a clever way.) Or perhaps they were just trying to contrast the awfulness of conservative upper-class 19th-century England with Alice’s adventure in Wonderland. But then they should have played the scenes in England straight, with the actors portraying actual characters and not just Generic Englishpeople. If they cast an actress of the calibre of Lindsay Duncan, why not give her something to do?
But as cliché as Alice’s journey is, from the first moment to the last, it is the details of her journey that are really disturbing. You see, Alice’a self-doubt is not only about being the Chosen One or not. There are two more elements. One is that every now and then the screenwriters remind us that Alice thinks it’s all a dream. This element of the plot feels entirely tacked-on; the moment she decides it’s all real is entirely arbitrary.
Never mind that, though, because there’s the second element: Alice says she would never kill the Jabberwocky, because she doesn’t want to slay anything. And this is what she has to overcome: her dislike of killing. Not her fear, not her self-doubt, not her belief it’s all a dream. What makes her into a hero is deciding that killing is OK.
For a while, I was hoping the story was going into a different direction, into Alice questioning why she was there and what she was supposed to do. After all, this is supposed to be the story of someone learning to stand up for themselves and not to do what is expected of them. But Alice does everything that is expected of her. If some scroll says she’s going to put on some badly-fitting armor and kill a dragon… sure, let’s do that. After all, the scroll says she should, and everyone tells her to. What a good little Alice.
Dragons are powerful, meaningful figures. They exist in stories all across the globe; they are our legacy from ancient times. As such, they have the ability to take on many meanings and shapes. We can be moved by the hero who kills a dragon, and by the hero who befriends a dragon. We can hate the villain who slays the dragon, or the villain who allies himself with the dragon. If Alice was afraid of the dragon, this would be a different story. If Alice thought she couldn’t defeat the dragon, this would be a different story. But in this story, Alice has to learn to want to kill the dragon. She is wrong to think that killing is bad. She has to become like her enemies; in the end, she even says “Off with your head!” And here I was thinking that line belonged to the bad guys!
I couldn’t help but be reminded of the movie version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. In that particular piece of garbage – made, supposedly, by Christians for Christians – Peter is instructed to KILL (add exclamation marks for proper effect) a wolf he has just defeated. Because defeating an enemy is not enough – you have to butcher them, to be a real soldier of Divine Justice. (Later Susan becomes a hero by shooting a dwarf in the back.) I know, not exactly what Christ had in mind, but perfect for mindwashing little fanatics about how killing people in Iraq and Afghanistan is OK. Tim Burton and Linda Woolverton may not be entirely as insane, but the same type of thinking runs through this movie. And frankly, I’m not surprised. Out here the world is going to hell, but Burton’s movies seem incapable of dealing with that, preferring to chant along to “imagination is good” and sticking their head in a rabbithole. True imagination is revelation; Burton’s imagination seems to be more occupied with not looking at the world and keeping things hidden behind walls of forced eccentricity and goth makeup.
The filmmakers’ disturbing cruelty also comes through in the punishment inflicted upon the Red Queen after her defeat. Now, as bad screenwriters tend to do, the writer of this film has given the two queens (and Alice, come to think of it) Daddy Issues. Daddy Issues are the most horrible and overused way of adding “depth” to characters, and very rarely justified by the story. In this case, the Red Queen (who is actually more like the Queen of Hearts from the original novel, but who cares about the original novel) is deeply insecure and wants to be loved. Her evil underling, Stayne, at one point convinces her that it is better to be feared than to be loved – but we see clearly that she has had her doubts about her actions, and that she would be much happier if people loved her. She very much believes that Stayne loves her.
Now I don’t know about you, but I feel pity for this character. I want her to be defeated, sure, but I feel for her sorrow. She is misguided more than she is evil. So why does the movie think that I will applaud when the Red Queen is punished by no-one ever speaking to her again, and being bound to Stayne – who turns out to absolutely hate her? Why should I laugh at this woman who has suffered such a cruel fate? Being rejected in love is never funny.
If her feelings weren’t genuine, it would be a different story. You can applaud a fraudster being rejected, as I recently did. But that’s a triumph of truth, not of cruelty. Or if she was an all-out fairytale queen, more a figure or symbol of oppression and injustice than a real person, that would have a different meaning. But since the filmmakers do put in the psychological elements, however unnecessary or badly-written they might be, this is nothing but cruelty. We’re supposed to applaud the cruelty, just like we’re supposed to applaud Alice learning to kill.
Even if this film had the right to call itself Alice in Wonderland, even if it didn’t throw out most of the content and spirit of the novels, it would still be still be a big pile of clichés, shot with little imagination and full of disturbing cruelty on the part of the filmmakers.
What I wonder is this: if Burton were to finally make a different sort of film, would it just end up being another Planet of the Apes?