Friday, October 16, 2009

Tim Burton and Alice in Wonderland

Last week I expressed reservations about Terry Gilliam's new movie The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus. But there is another film, coming out next year, whose trailer has me even more troubled -- Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland.

My initial reaction was that this version of Alice is unrecognizable. Judging by the trailer, the movie's atmosphere is going to be very dark and there will be little to none of the air of the sunny English garden which we usually associate with Alice. These visual clues are reinforced by the voiceover's assertion that this Wonderland is "a land full of wonder, mystery and danger." I am all for bringing a new twist to an old classic, but the trailer also makes the movie look like the million other children's fantasy movies that have come out in the last 5 years (Harry Potter, the Golden Compass, the Chronicles of Narnia...). Plus they seem to have gone heavy on the CGI, and the movie is going to be released in 3-D. Oh dear, oh dear, so much to discuss...

Tim Burton

I'm a fan of what Tim Burton does, but most of his recent films didn't really do it for me. His trademark gothic style worked great in movies like Beetlejuice (my absolute favorite movie when I was 13yo), Edward Scissorhands and Batman, but I think it's starting to get stale. And if we look at his attempts at adapting and reimagining familiar stories the track record isn't good. Sleepy Hollow was almost wholly without merit -- as you would expect when people take a short story and stretch it out into a cookie cutter feature-length film. Planet of the Apes I didn't see, but it looks bizarre and totally different from the original (like aren't there apemen in battle armor?). Charlie and the Chocolate Factory just begged for comparison with the beloved musical version of Willy Wonka from the '70s, and it was clearly the inferior of the two. I also haven't seen Sweeney Todd yet, but it looked like it was really dark and gloomy. Nicole summed up my feelings pretty well a while back in her open letter to Tim Burton: branch out, stop doing the same tired ole thing, and why you gotta put Johnny and Hel-Hel in all your films? It's no coincidence that my favorite later Tim Burton film -- possibly my favorite of all his films -- was the marvellous Big Fish which was in many ways a departure. Big Fish had some gothic and fantasy elements but this was counter-balanced by sunshine and a strong basis (physical and emotional) in reality.

Tim Burton speaks about Alice

Burton first discussed the Alice project in depth in an interview a year ago. This is what he had to say:

It's a funny project. The story is obviously a classic with iconic images and ideas and thoughts. But with all the movie versions, well, I've just never seen one that really had any impact to me. It's always just a series of weird events. Every character is strange and she's just kind of wandering through all of the encounters as just a sort of observer. The goal is to try to make it an engaging movie where you get some of the psychology and kind of bring a freshness but also keep the classic nature of 'Alice.'

Tim specifically refers to the 1951 Disney cartoon which a lot of us are familiar with. Most people would agree that this wasn't the greatest: the movie was kind of Fantasia lite -- a series of diverting images and scenes lacking the artistry and beauty of the 1940 film, and the Alice story is rendered in a bland way -- half-Americanized and wiping away any Victorian elements which modern children wouldn't understand.

The Alice books

The two Alice books (Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking GlassThrough the Looking-Glass and What Alice Found There) are an odd pair of classics. Both really do lack an overarching plot beyond some vague references to Alice trying to get home or maybe trying to reach the eighth square on the chessboard where pawns become queens. Alice really does just wander around having a series of adventures and meeting a line-up of muppety oddballs who converse and interact with her before they part ways. There's not much in the way of conflict or danger (even the Queen of Hearts, who hastily ordered executions for the slightest offenses with an "off with his head!", is quickly revealed to be all bark and no bite), and one can definitely detect a faint whiff of the stuffy Victorian nursery. The books' endings are particularly anti-climactic as Alice just suddenly awakens to discover that it had all been a dream.

So then why are these books still read and loved by so many people? Well, despite their shortcomings as novels (if one would even call them novels), Alice's adventures are very entertaining. Lewis Carroll's Wonderland characters are all animated with his special brand of nonsense which involves word play, the misapplication of rules of logic, and the perversion of the day's manners and etiquette. There are plenty of scenes, as well as dialogue ("Why is a raven like a writing desk?") and poems (often parodies of sappy children's rhymes that are now long forgotten) which stick in your mind. Many of the characters come off as pompous adults attempting to teach the little girl lessons, but rather than giving sound moral instruction it's usually confusing, dubious and comical.

The Alice books were clearly written to entertain children (there's a tameness and primness to the work which distinguishes it from the more grizzly and disturbing tales told to children in previous centuries), but they don't really talk down to children. They're fast-paced, and re-reading them is always enjoyable and rewarding as you're bound to pick up on some references you missed when you were younger. For instance, when Alice meets the mouse in the pool of tears towards the beginning of Wonderland, she addresses him as "O Mouse" using the vocative case as glimpsed in her brother's Latin Grammar. When the mouse doesn't seem to understand her, she toys with the idea that he must be a French mouse that came over with William the Conqueror because although she knows her history lessons her concept of time and how long ago things took place is fuzzy.

These examples also show us another of books' high points -- Lewis Carroll's rendering of Alice from a child development perspective. Alice is intelligent and well-educated but she is also only 7 1/2, so it makes sense that she would misapply things half-remembered from her lessons and that there would be gaps in her knowledge when it came to concepts that can only be mastered through experience (understanding how long ago historical events took place relatively speaking is a particularly hard idea for children to grasp).

Outlook on Tim Burton's Alice

Having said all this, I understand what Tim Burton was saying about the difficulty of turning the Alice books into an engaging movie. I do believe that, often, in order to make a good adaptation, a director has to have the courage to depart from the source material and to make his own decisions (Stanley Kubrick's movies The Shining, Lolita and A Clockwork Orange are good examples of this). I'm just afraid that, here, Tim Burton might have abandoned a lot of the charm and intelligent humor of the books and replaced it with something less interesting and original. The trailer makes me worry that rather than giving us a twisted version of the Alice story, Burton has just stolen familiar characters and scenes from the books and inserted them into a wholly different (and probably inferior) storyline.

One thing that is clear from the trailer is that the filmmakers used a lot of CGI in order to combine live action and animation. Just look at Helena Bonham Carter as the Queen of Hearts who is given surreal proportions (now that I think of it, the image is vaguely reminiscent of Bette Davis in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex). CGI has its place, but I think that too much of it can ruin a movie. All of the visuals on screen have to mesh well together, and one has to make sure computer animation doesn't distance the audience from the film's characters and story. Plus, this can be a bad sign because an abundance of CGI is often used to try and cover up a weak storyline.

As for the 3-D IMAX release (another warning sign that a movie might be all flashy visuals and no substance), I have actually never seen a movie like this before (other than, like, the movie in the Newseum). I think the technology doesn't work well for people like me who wear glasses. But, beyond that, is this new 3-D just a gimmick? Does it detract from the movie as art?

My favorite Alice adaption

I have fond memories of watching (and re-watching over and over again) the Alice in Wonderland TV-movie that came out in 1985. This was a musical which featured original songs and a cast filled with celebrities: Sherman Helmsley as the Mouse; Sammy Davis, Jr. as the Caterpillar; Telly Sevalas as the Cheshire Cat; Carol Channing as the White Queen; Shelley Winters as the Dodo....

This is probably the most faithful screen adaptation of the Alice books, and since -- as we said above -- a lot of the action consists of Alice meeting an assortment of off-kilter characters it made sense for them to turn it into a big production allowing a huge cast of entertainers to make an appearance and do their thing. From what I remember, the songs were pretty catchy, and they often came from the poems recited in the book such as "You are old, Father William" and "The Walrus and the Carpenter." This was an excellent way of including these in a movie without putting everyone to sleep. There's even some underlying themes about growing up and facing your fears which they threw in so as to give Alice a story arc.


The 1985 Alice movie is available on DVD. And if you're looking for a copy of the Alice books I would suggest either the Annotated Alice (which includes footnotes explaining all of Lewis Carroll's various allusions, neologisms, etc.) or perhaps a set featuring the illustrations of Mervyn Peake which are far more interesting than the Tenniel illustrations from the first edition which were all more familiar with (damn those are out of print now? I remember giving one as a Christmas gift when I was in Nola).

Another Alice related posts:  Marilyn Manson Goes Down the Rabbit Hole

Images: Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen taken from; Mervyn Peake illustration of Alice found on Tea, Sympathy and Perfume, Alice with Red Queen found on


Mayank said...
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Mr. said...
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