By Jonathan Kiefer
Let history handle the business of judging director Tim Burton and Disney’s take on Lewis Carroll’s fantasy classic against all other film-adaptation attempts (which most notably occurred in 1903, 1933 and 1951). A more pressing question is whether Burton’s film will satisfy fans of his earlier work.
As a pink flamingo used as a golf club said, politely, to hedgehog used as a golf ball: “So sorry.”
It’s dispiriting to see Burton, the wayward Disney employee, dragged back into the fold by the platitudinous force of Lion King and Beauty and the Beast scribe Linda Woolverton, here apparently a dutiful company woman going through the motions of dramatizing feminist self-empowerment.
Indeed, before getting home to tell all those corseted pop-up-book aristocrats what to do with their arranged marriage, this Alice (a canny Mia Wasikowska) first must indulge a formulaic foreordained quest to tame the Bandersnatch, slay the Jabberwock and save the computer-generated day.
OK, but what of Burton the visualist, so encouragingly keen on 19th-century illustrator John Tenniel’s essential contributions to Carroll’s books?
“If you go back to Tenniel,” Burton said in one interview, “so much of his work is what stays in your mind about Alice and about Wonderland. Alice and the characters have been done so many times and in so many ways, but Tenniel’s art really lasts there in your memory.”
Absolutely. And yet, as reviewer Neal Pollack observed on Twitter during the last blitz of promo posters: “It seems that Tim Burton has turned ‘Alice in Wonderland’ into a story about a 3D gay clown.”
That would be Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, the Bozo-haired, chartreuse-eyed oddity seen grinning in the poster, but just as often fretting in the movie. There also had been a prevailing hope that Burton’s taste for such inherently gothic somber beauties as Depp and Helena Bonham Carter would carry the day. And it should be said that, while at times all the CG clutter nearly does Depp in, Burton also harnesses its unlifelike absurdity to bring out the best of Bonham Carter’s tendency toward weirdly proportioned performances. Hence the hilariously shrill and huffy Red Queen, with a head way too big for her body.
It’s a mystery how these things work—or don’t.
In the case of the Red Queen’s henchfreak, Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts, the actor’s own weirdness and the movie’s seem to render each other inert. The White Queen, Red’s rival sister, is a fey, pallid Anne Hathaway, unencumbered by computer effects apparently so she may flounder in the community-theater mode of “I don’t really understand my motivation but the director said to do this.”
But at least we have the hookah-puffing caterpillar played by Alan Rickman. Is that really all we need now for a Burton triumph?
Alice in Wonderland
Directed by Tim Burton
With Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway and Crispin Glover
Dreamcatcher, Regal Stadium 14