I actually saw Alice in Wonderland in the cinema when it came out (way back in 2010), which is practically unheard of for me. I tend to see things about a decade after the rest of the world. It was an annoying viewing experience admittedly: we arrived late, missed the beginning, couldn’t find our seats and ended up just sitting on the floor instead. But that was by no means the most irksome part of it- the actual film irritated me so much that I was unable to actually get down my thoughts about it without getting grumpy. As a result I was struggling to prod my brain into gear so that I could remember why it was definitely such a good candidate for Fan Death and ended up forcing myself to sit through it again.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and Lewis Carroll’s sequel Through the Looking-Glass, are two of my very favourite books. I have a (now rather battered) edition of the two that my grandmother won in a sewing competition won in 1937, which I think speaks to the timelessness of the stories. They’re fantastical, surreal and beautifully written- and seem to effortlessly manage the rare gift of being delightful to adults and children alike. I have an edition of Wonderland illustrated by Anthony Browne (I may have a few too many copies, shh) which wonderfully realises the sublime ridiculousness inherent.
Alice is most certainly a classic. Of course there have been lots of adaptations; the Wikipedia disambiguation page is a little overwhelming and that’s without getting into their list of works based on Carroll’s story.
I’m not a huge Burton-phile but I was intrigued by the idea of Tim Burton, the director of films like Corpse Bride and Big Fish, being involved with a version of Alice in Wonderland. I was envisaging a quirky reimagining of the story that didn’t stray too far from the plot of the original. There’s certainly scope for a darker, and more adult, reading of the original text too- much has been made of the possible drug allusions for example and it’s been suggested that Carroll’s interest in young girls (and especially the real life Alice who inspired the book) was of a sexual nature.
However the film was not at all what I expected.
To start with I take issue with the name- given that this is in no way an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland and is set in “Underland”. It’s not the fact that it’s set in the future that I mind, the idea of an adult Alice returning to this dreamlike world is interesting and makes sense as she already returned once in Through the Looking-Glass. What I disliked was the whole ridiculous plot where Alice has to slay the Jabberwocky on Frabjous Day. It’s absurd- and not in the good way. While the film does make reference to the original work- with lines like “curiouser and curiouser” and the repetition of the idea of believing six imaginary things, along with talking flowers and rocking horse flies- it barely acknowledges the actual story. Instead it turns Alice into something it never was- another bland fantasy quest.
Many of these throwaway references, and indeed the Jabberwocky nonsense poem and the two Queens which form a large part of the movie’s plot, are in fact from Through the Looking-Glass but very little of that book’s plot and characters are incorporated which I think is quite a shame. Instead things like the Vorpal Sword and Bandersnatch are pumped up into important plot points, which Absolem, more commonly referred to as the Caterpillar, explains to Alice using the Oraculum. In a world replete with fascinating creatures and ideas I’m not sure why the film decided to attach such import to this one poem (which is really designed to emphasise the dreaminess of Wonderland) or to treat it as a prophecy.
I suppose that the idea was to show Alice’s female empowerment but that doesn’t seem worth it at the expense of practically the entire plot. Not to mention that the whole “girl power” storyline, and dialogue, seem needlessly anachronistic. Alice is very much a story about a girl growing up and learning how to think for herself- tacking on an explicitly feminist (and indeed capitalist) message that wasn’t present in the original story seems clumsy.
Also the Hatter seemed to refer to Alice as a “he” a number of times, was this supposed to be a reference to his insanity or that Alice was taking on a male role?
The actress playing the titular character- Mia Wasikowska- seemed like a poor man’s Kate Hudson. There was something very irritating about her, perhaps her enunciation, and even Alice’s whimsical nature at the beginning of the film sat uneasily. The curiosity and confusion of a child makes sense, but that of a young women seems more unsettling.
The Mad Hatter’s role was needlessly expanded in order to showcase Johnny Depp, whose accent was randomly yo-yoing about between English and Scottish for reasons surpassing understanding. The suggestion of romance between him and Alice seemed shoehorned and creepy (especially given that he met her when he was a child; at least the story contained some reference to paedophilia I suppose). Quite frankly it seems like Tim Burton needs to get out and make some new friends- and to stop casting Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter in everything. At least they weren’t playing each other’s love interests for once.
Helena Bonham Carter was horribly annoying as the Red Queen which I know was on purpose, but that didn’t stop it grating. She seemed too cruel and villainous, as if her characterisation in Through the Looking-Glass had been completely ignored, and was instead based on the Queen of Hearts from Wonderland. Her appearance seems to have been very influenced by that of Elizabeth I, and her role seems to owe a debt to portrayals of this Queen, from Judi Dench to Miranda Richardson. This analogy fits weirdly too, is the White Queen supposed to then be Mary Tudor or Mary Stuart?
The White Queen (played by Anne Hathaway) seemed rather inconsistently characterised- she comes across as flighty and sweet but in the end is quite cruel to her elder sister (who really does seem to have more of a claim to the crown) and the Knave of Hearts (played by Crispin Glover). Plus her eyebrows looked ridiculous.
This battle between the sister Queens, a major plot point in the film, is again not really based on anything present in the book in which they co-exist despite being involved in a complicated chess game.
I did enjoy some of the supporting roles, such as Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar and Matt Lucas as both Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Stephen Fry was also fun as the Cheshire Cat, although he came across as a bit too creepy during Alice’s first meeting with him. The Caterpillar has always been portrayed as infuriating and the twins as annoying, but I don’t see why Chesh needed to seem particularly disturbing. Mally the dormouse (voiced by Barbara Windsor) was a rather odd character, and I couldn’t understand why they decided to change the dormouse’s gender. She seemed like a too angry wannabe Reepicheep.
One thing that especially annoyed me was that Alice’s shrinking and growing was played for laughs- but that her outfit sometimes did change size with her and sometimes didn’t. Similarly the idea that both the Red Queen and Knave of Hearts wouldn’t recognise Alice, when they in fact recognised her picture in the Oraculum, seemed pretty dumb- as was the idea that they’d believe that her name was “Um”. (Did I make a rhyme?)
The fact that Alice would not believe that she was actually there in Underland, and persisted on claiming that she was dreaming, became quite irritating. She fell down a hole into the place, pinched herself, was stabbed in the foot by Mally, and was there for ages- yet doesn’t even seem to entertain the possibility that this is reality. Likewise she makes references to her recurring dreams about the place, but doesn’t seem at all familiar with Underland when she arrives. Although obviously the characters and situations she encounters are otherworldly, it doesn’t seem very dream-like. The film really doesn’t manage to convey the confusing nature of dreams in the way that the books do. She seems to finally recall being there when Absalem mentions that she originally mistook it for a “Wonderland”, and it seems rather ridiculous that that is what pulls everything together for her.
The twists and turns of the plot seemed a bit too convoluted. For example, Bayard the hound (voiced by Timothy Spall) is not a supporter of the Red Queen but is motivated to help her in exchange for the freedom of him and his family. He then doesn’t expose Alice to the Queen’s men when the Mad Hatter asks him not to, but Alice later wakes up to him sniffing around and chastises him for betraying the Hatter and not leading the enemy away from her. Shortly after that they’re suddenly friends and he’s obeying her orders, taking her to the Red Queen’s castle (bearer of another ridiculous name- Salazen Grum). A moment of bonding, or of Bayard explaining why he was dithering about, would have made the whole thing make sense but instead it’s glossed over.
Her fight scene with the Jabberwocky seemed too long, and merely emphasised how far the film had gone off into the deep end. It really seemed to have very little to do with Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, plus it seemed to be ignoring an opportunity to use the chessboard metaphor properly. The Hatter doing the Futterwacken dance was well foreshadowed but it seemed a bit out of place- and as if the film was trying a bit too hard to be as fun as something like Shrek.
The idea of Alice returning to the real world and seeing parallels with Wonderland was kind of cute- the bitchy twins remind her of Tweedledee and Tweedledum for example, and her brother-in-law Lowell seems rather reminiscent of the Knave of Hearts- but it might have worked better if there was a more complete set of analogues and it did seem a bit too Wizard of Oz. The blurring of Underland and the real world sits uneasily- if, as Alice declares, Underland is real why do we get the sense that it’s a dream influenced by real life? It might have been better if Alice had first heard the line about believing as many as six impossible things from the White Queen, as she does in the book, than from her father.
The ending was horrifically Orientalist, making merry reference to the Opium Wars and British expansion in China with apparent unconcern. I thought that that had to be the low point of the film, but then my ears were assaulted by Avril Lavigne’s ‘Alice‘ which played over the end credits. It just goes to show that there’s always further to fall.
I must say that the film does look good (although the inclusion of the CGI White Rabbit in the real world scenes before Alice enters Underland didn’t seem properly integrated) and it made good use of the 3D technology. But at the end of the day it seemed to be pretty much all style, and almost entirely devoid of substance.