As good as a nice cup of tea, and a sit down.

Sunday, 21 March 2010

Alice in Wonderland, Revisited.

With the anticipation amongst his fan base at fever pitch, it finally arrived earlier this month. Teaser stills of Johnny Depp’s (surprised?) Hatter and Helena Bonham-Carter’s (even more surprised?) Red Queen surfaced months ago, and their appearance seemed to confirm that Tim Burton's adaptation of Alice in Wonderland - in 3D, no less - might warrant some fuss.

Of course, visually it does. Burton has unquestionably earned some of his adulation over the years: his imaginative, distinctive visual style is now instantly recognisable in modern cinema. In 2010, he commands an audience eager to go and see anything he puts his name to. So, with a CGI budget that most directors would kill for, his vision of Wonderland is overblown beyond anyone’s wildest dreams (except maybe his). Swathes of colours, textures, wonderfully distorted characters – vast landscapes which would be more befitting of Lord of the Rings. Like it or not, Alice’s polite English eccentricism is all but lost, swamped in Burton’s new vision.

The story too has had the same treatment. It begins as a post script (a clumsy '13 Years Later'), complete with an almost grown-up Alice (Mia Wasikowska). A brave move? Perhaps. But despite this there is a palpable sense of anticipation in the first 20 minutes, reinforced by the rather violent rabbit hole sequence, that something good is about to happen. And so it is with regret that, very soon after this point, I begin to take umbrage with Alice in Wonderland, revisited.

Of course, like Burton’s adaptation Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, you can guess at the logic behind choosing to rewrite. Given the familiarity of both novels, Burton wanted to offer the audience something more of his own, taking back an element of predictability. But then, there are two already authored sequels to both of his screen adaptations: Alice Through The Looking Glass and Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator. Though in the past some of Through the Looking Glass has been amalgamated with Adventures in Wonderland, it remains largely overlooked.
But it would seem that Burton has doggedly pursued his own creation, and like Frankenstein birthing his creature, it is the undoing of him.

Perhaps my expectations for this were too high, but speaking as a Burton fan, I cannot find much to love in the ham-fisted plot. Loosely extending Carroll’s genius/nonsense poem The Jabberwocky, rather than approaching his literary canon cautiously, Alice 3D happily shreds tales many have cherished since they could read.

It’s not the inventiveness of the new Alice that catches off-guard, but rather the sloppiness. The plot holds a vaguely ‘Girl Power’ identity crisis: Alice is dismayed by the confinements of her life in the real world, and flees an unwanted marriage proposal she is told she must accept. In Wonderland, she achieves autonomy by following the orders of a bossy Caterpillar and completing the prophecy of an ancient manuscript (AKA the go-to device for any screenwriter’s gaping plot holes). The choice is hers? Not really, of course, there is no choice. It is written that she must slay the Jabberwock to become ‘who she really is,’ and of course she does "triumph over adversity"– this is a Disney film after all. Even anyone missing the whopping great contradiction there should still pick up on casual borrowings from the Wizard of Oz, including the final scene in Wonderland that screams “copyright infringement!” As the Good Witch (sorry, White Queen) banishes the Bad Witch (Red Queen) and tells Alice that she can go home, she kisses the Scarecrow (sorry, Johnny Depp) goodbye and returns to the real world, wiser for her endeavours.

If you go see Alice in 3D at the cinema, I should recommend that you leave your brain at the door and simply let the waves of dazzling visual effects wash your cerebral cortex. But I can’t in good faith do that: it’s a children’s book that has been valued for over a century for its intelligence and wit, and it’s essentially been hollowed out as a vehicle for some clever CGI cash cow. The 1951 Disney version might not have the out-and-out showiness of this one, but it still stands up after nearly 60 years. This version, I'd rather forget.

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