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Alison Wilde reviews Tim Burton's recent interpretation of Alice in Wonderland / 30 March 2010

Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter in Alice In Wonderland

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Directed by Tim Burton, screenplay by Linda Woolverton and starring Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Mia Wasikowska and Anne Hathaway. UK release date: 5 March 2010.

For me, film adaptations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There are akin to covers of The Carpenters’ music. It just shouldn’t be done because it cannot come close to the beauty of the original.

For those who haven’t read these books, Alice’s journeys to Wonderland and through the looking glass are the epitome of literary nonsense, playing with logic and language to create absurd, puzzling, yet meaningless worlds, before Alice returns to her own life, seemingly unchanged.

Just as the reader feels that they are on the edge of understanding, meaning slides away. This is perhaps most obvious in the motif of the Cheshire Cat’s ever-changing or disappearing and re-appearing form, and the almost meaningful ’mimsy borogroves’ of the Jabberwocky poem. Despite the impossible task of creating cinematic nonsense, I awaited the release of Alice in Wonderland with eager anticipation, having enjoyed most of Tim Burton’s previous films being particularly fond of Ed Wood and Edward Scissorhands.

The Burton, Depp, Bonham-Carter triumvirate has worked well in films such as Sweeney Todd, Corpse Bride and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and, once again, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter seemed ideally suited to their roles, this time as the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen.

The trailers for the film led me to expect a quirky, nonsense-based approach to Lewis Carroll’s original stories of Alice. I found the snippets shown of the Mad Hatter’s tea party particularly enticing. I was intrigued to see how Tim Burton and Linda Woolverton would depict the Hatter’s ‘madness’ and hoped that it would reflect something akin to Burton’s earlier depictions of ‘outsiders’.

His capacity to create multidimensional and often beguiling human beings is most obviously seen in Johnny Depp’s characterisation of Edward Scissorhands but can also be found in characters such as ‘Carl the Giant’ in Big Fish (Matthew McGrory).

So I had high expectations. But most of all I wanted to find out why the Red Queen had been cast with such a large head. Marketed as a sequel it doesn’t seem necessary to be true to the original but Burton’s Alice takes what it wants from both of these books creating a mish-mash of Alice-related paraphernalia, tailored perhaps to Disney’s most lucrative merchandising options.

Character-wise, the film is more closely related to Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There, featuring Tweedledum and Tweedledee (expertly, convincingly and amusingly played by Matt Lucas), the Jabberwocky (strangely similar to the Jabberwocky of my imagination), the chessboard battlefield and, of course, the Red Queen.

As I expected, Depp’s performance, with the exception of an excruciating dance routine (or Futterwacken) was excellent - encouraging empathy and identification from the audience. He took the material as far as he could in the portrayal of the hatter as a wise, confused, mercurial, creative, but essentially good character. Judging from the trailers I had expected a sequel based on the Mad Hatter’s point of view, which would have been a novel way of approaching the material. His role was certainly pivotal to the story but this sadly wasn’t the case.

Although Burton played with ideas of normality, madness and sanity from the start, the way these ideas were confronted was superficial, being largely confined to schmaltzy statements in moments of intimacy. Early on Alice’s father confides that ‘all the best people are bonkers’, a reassurance which Alice passes on to the hatter when he is distressed later in the film.

I was disappointed to find that moments of nonsense and ‘irrationality’ or delusion or were scant, quickly contained, and in some cases ridiculed. The character of Aunt Imogene played by the (grossly under-used) Frances de La Tour is derided and used for comedic value as a sad spinster who is convinced that she is betrothed to a Prince.

Overall, themes of rationality were tied to the poles of good and evil. Aside from the (way too brief) party scene, moments of nonsense were most closely tied to the cruelty of the Red Queen, from the maltreatment of the pigs as footstools and the use of flamingos as croquet mallets (as Carroll did), to her reasons for creating carnage. 

Meanwhile, Alice’s journey becomes ever more deliberate and rational as she develops into the heroine of the piece. If she were Carroll's Alice, she would be meandering with a sense of wonder, experiencing life in all its pain, glory and confusion!

Despite another excellent performance by Bonham-Carter, Burton’s portrayal of the Red Queen is symptomatic of the weaknesses of this film. She is a hybrid character which seems to be loosely based on the personality of Alice in Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts, confusingly named after the Red Queen in Alice through the looking glass. These queens have been confused before but neither of them characterised as evil protagonists in Carroll’s work, notwithstanding the Queen of Hearts worrying ‘sentence before verdict’ approach to capital punishment and justice.

Framing the central themes around the goodness of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and the wickedness of the Red Queen was a great disappointment. It made the film feel more like ‘Hatty Potter’ and it deprived some fine actors of the opportunity to develop their characters properly. One such moment occurs when Alice reaches the tea party and Johnny Depp begins a very promising performance as the Mad Hatter. Lines such as ‘of course it’s Alice, I’d know him anywhere’ were all too scarce.

One thing that did seem particularly nonsensical about this film was the addition of characters with impairments, perhaps the only thing (apart from 3D) which this film has in common with Avatar. This seemed odd, as Burton seems to have a reasonably good record for casting disabled people as disabled people in his films, including actors such as McGrory, and Deep Roy as all of the Oompa Loompas in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (notwithstanding issues of disability or racial stereotyping in Dahl’s original use of ‘imported pygmies’ ).

But, aside from the impossibility of employing scissor-handed actors for the part of Edward Scissorhands, Burton’s attitude to casting actors has usually been appropriate to disabled characters, which made the portrayal of the Red Queen and her ‘disabled’ courtiers all the more disappointing. It was implied here that the queen chose them on their basis of their very visible impairments, a predilection which is presumably based on her feelings towards her own large head (three times its usual size), especially as she welcomes Alice to her court because she is unusually tall.

This could have raised some interesting questions about collective disabled identities, but the opportunity was missed, resulting in the portrayal of physical impairment in wholly negative terms; highlighting the queen’s self loathing and the snivelling, parasitical behaviour of her courtiers.

These characters were firmly cast as figures of fun and at best, did nothing to further the story. This seemed utterly pointless, assuming there is no intent to demean disabled characters. However, apart from this, Bonham Carter’s characterisation of the Red Queen was amusing and compelling.

Her face was beautiful in its storybook simplicity, emphasising her character as the Queen of Hearts. Although she was referred to as the Red Queen, the unmentioned heart motif predominated, carried through in the shape of her lipstick, her face definition, her hair and much of the architecture of her palace. The size of her head, juxtaposed with her petite frame, contributed to her caricature of the Red Queen, emphasising the incongruence of her compulsion for decapitating her subjects and the oft-quoted line ‘Off with their heads!’

It may seem fussy, but as much as I liked her characterisation I was disappointed by two interconnected things; the way she was used to perpetuate disabling images of impairment and the dissonant relationship of her characterisation to Lewis Carroll’s work. Together this worked to over-simplify her character and narratives of impairment into (all too easy) moral tales of good and evil.

Looking slightly deeper, it was more than a little disconcerting that the Red Queen was used as a metaphor for Alice’s mother, evident in the repetition of gardening analogies and overpowering social expectations. Given Alice’s obvious devotion to her father and her determination to follow in his footsteps this is, on a psychological level, a tale which frames her as a girl who re-enters Wonderland to strengthen her hostility towards her mother and her identification with her father. Echoing these impulses, her close relationships throughout with the film are made with older male figures such as the hatter and her father’s business partner (even the Cat and the caterpillar are male).

And I think it’s worth asking again, why does disability enter into this frame through the badness of the Red Queen? However, any resemblance to Bergman’s Persona, as a thoughtful exposition of the Electra complex, ends here. Alice’s close identification with her father and contempt for her mother is treated as a favourable outcome. This is a very radical departure from the Alice I thought I knew.

I like to think that Burton would have made the film quite differently if money wasn’t such an important consideration. If Disney and the need for a mass audience wasn’t such a big part of the equation maybe Burton’s creativity could have been given full reign, facilitating a more courageous approach to the film’s ‘painting by numbers’ structure. Certainly, his love of Lewis Carroll’s work is evident in the aesthetics of the film, with the glorious images of the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen, Tweedledum/dee, the Cheshire Cat and even the Jabberwocky all paying homage to the creativity of the originals.

The use of 3D technology was exceptional, the high point being Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole, which made up for the strange images of the first ten minutes of the film, where the landscapes of Alice’s real life, reminded me of 3D pop-up card. One hopes that the vibrancy of the art throughout most of the film may encourage children to read the originals. There must be a greater chance of this than Harry Potter leading readers to great literature (or even a good read).

As an Alice enthusiast (from the age of 4) I have rarely seen good film versions of Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass. Although none can compare to the reading of the original literature, there have been some enjoyable versions, including Jan Švankmajer‘s Alice (1988) Jonathan Miller’s TV play (1966) and William Stirling’s (correctly named) Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1972). These interpretations seem more faithful to the spirits of nonsense, discovery, uncertainty and philosophical questioning found in the original Alice books.

Burton’s Alice follows the propensity of blockbusters to tell a crude tale of morality. This gives it many similarities to the likes of Harry Potter, Avatar and others. Like them, this Alice feeds moments of the original story into predictable storylines, signposted with remarkably similar soundtracks. Much though I have enjoyed Danny Elfman’s music, I may well walk out at the sound of the next heavenly choir.

This is Tim Burton’s Alice not Lewis Carroll’s. As such it works as an entertaining but very formulaic film. Aside from the visual feast, it does little to introduce readers to the original Alice. Wonderland is also the ideal place to question the nonsense of disability. Maybe next time.

Keywords: film,mental health,