Alice in Wonderland Review
Once again I find myself looking at a disc that has been out for some considerable time and already reviewed on this site, and also discussed at length on our podcast. As such, since it’s likely that most already know the premise, I don’t propose to spend a great deal of time discussing the synopsis, since it is the 3D that we’re all here to discuss.
That said, having to revisit this title, and after the bashing it received upon its initial release, I was quite surprised at how much it had grown on me. Burton’s reimaging of an iconic creation still has its flaws, to be sure, but somehow, to me, at least, its whimsicality and story drive seem much more palatable. I find that odd, because I have been very resistant on the idea of realism in some adaptations. Sometimes it works incredibly well, The Dark Knight and Casino Royale are the pinnacle of excellence – but when it comes to fantasy, e.g. Burton’s own Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, to give Wonka a father figure and thus motivation for his actions, was simply too much and an unnecessary addition into what should have been a light fluffy film. Exactly the same comparison can be drawn with the characters in Alice, particularly that of the Hatter – his schizophrenic behaviour is shown to derive from the devastation wrought in his life and thus he has a real sense of madness about him, a dangerous, barely controlled anger that manifests itself as split personalities. But wasn’t the Hatter always mad? Isn’t his name the Mad Hatter? Both Burton and Depp wanted to give the character more depth, more motivation, and indeed in the intervening years between Alice’s visits a decaying Underland could have pushed an already unstable mind over the edge and into dangerous territory. On this front the character works. But, this is not the kind of film we where expect such a revolutionary change. Depp plays the character as deranged, despite the ‘fun’ look of his clothing and make up, what he needed to be was lighter, whimsical, but with a slight edge of madness behind the eyes – I imagine Sylvester McCoy as the Doctor in his last season – there was that fun, childlike frivolity but underneath it all was a dark alien menace – that is how the Hatter should have been seen.
However, Burton and his striving for realism in a fantastical world did hit the nail right when it came to the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter); a beautiful creation of menace and charm whose underlying motivations are driven by a desire to be loved, rather than feared, but never being able to, due to childhood sibling favouritism issues. On the surface we have a feared monarch whose court is filled with sycophants who dress themselves as grotesques so as to be seen in common with the Queen’s huge head – these live in fear for their lives, with only Stayne, a genuine grotesquely large figure, able to have the Queen's ear, knowing, as he does, of the fondness she has for him. He suffers her advances because it gives him standing, but he admires beauty, he wants to love and not be feared, as much as the Queen, but both are trapped in the moulds that they have created for themselves. The Queen is by far the most rounded character of the film with a credible back-story and believable actions. When sitting with Umm there is a little moment when she drops her guard letting us see how venerable she really is, it’s lonely at the top and even more so when one rules with the constant threat of beheading.
Then we have Alice, herself, played by relative new comer Mia Wasikowska. The realism forced on this character is that of adulthood, burgeoning responsibility and belief in oneself. Alice no longer has that childhood wonder, that ‘muchness’, that her eight year old self had; as one grows up, one does put away childish things, it’s inevitable, and in this case her adventures in Wonderland have been resigned as dreams, so when she falls back down the rabbit hole, whilst she remembers the place and the people she no longer has the acceptance. Wasikowska walks a very fine line here, a blossoming girl whose age demands a marriage, even if that is of convenience rather than love, and whose struggling emotions of desire and responsibility don’t always sit right with her expected behaviour, she needs Wonderland to give her the confidence in herself, just as much as Wonderland needs her to be their champion. The putting on and taking off of the armour symbolically represents her shell to the world ‘outside’, her battle with the Jabberwocky a representation of slaying her own deamons. When she returns to the ‘real world’ rounded and confident not only can she dictate her actions to the ensemble family and friends, but is able to envisage a whole new world in her future, in essence bringing her own ‘wonderland’ with her. So the naivety to resolute character works within the confines of this story. This is a very different Alice, one that we’ve not seen, nor likely ever see again.
And finally, the story itself. Carroll’s original writings are a series of encounters and typically bizarre happenings that befall Alice as she wanders from place to place, in filmic terms a narrative character moving from set-piece to set-piece. All previous adaptations have followed the very same ‘path’ keeping in tune with how the book is supposed to be ‘seen’. Once again, Burton’s realism stance led him to force a linear plot on what is a non-linear story, and thus a classical adaptation is impossible – the books will not work that way. Therefore Alice returns to Wonderland after her initial adventures, characters and places remain the same, albeit altered due to the passage of time, and we are introduced to an actual linear plot in the form of the scroll. Not only does it show us the ending of the film but also how we are to get there. Can’t get more linear than that! Consequently set pieces are replaced with plot and the result is a coherent story that has no relation to the books other than the names. Wonderland, then, itself has lost some of its imagination, some of its wonder, and, in much the same way as all the characters have gone through a transition, it is only right and fitting here. Whether or not it works might depend on your regard for the original prose, but for me, in this light, with these characters and in this way, I think the story works very well.
It has taken a little while, but I think I can see what Burton was aiming for with this Alice, it’s not perfect, but it’s not bad either – it’s Wonderland aged.