Let history handle the business of judging director Tim Burton’s Disney take on Lewis Carroll’s fantasy classics against all other film-adaptation attempts — like the first, from 1903; or the one with Gary Cooper and W.C. Fields and Cary Grant from 1933; or Disney’s own fully animated try in 1951. A more pressing question is whether Burton’s film will satisfy fans of his earlier work.
Pink flamingo used as golf club, politely, to hedgehog used as golf ball: “So sorry.”
It’s dispiriting to see Burton the wayward Disney employee dragged back into the fold by the platitudinous force of “Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast” scribe Linda Woolverton, here apparently a dutiful company woman going through the motions of dramatizing feminist self-empowerment. Indeed, before getting home to tell all those those corseted pop-up-book aristocrats what to do with their arranged marriage, and sailing westward on the winds of Avril Lavigne, this Alice (a canny Mia Wasikowska) first must indulge a formulaic foreordained quest to tame the Bandersnatch, slay the Jabberwock and save the computer-generated day.
OK, but what of Burton the visualist, so encouragingly keen on illustrator John Tenniel’s essential contributions Carroll’s books? “If you go back to Tenniel,” Burton said in one interview, “so much of his work is what stays in your mind about Alice and about Wonderland. Alice and the characters have been done so many times and in so many ways, but Tenniel’s art really lasts there in your memory.”
Absolutely. And yet, as Neal Pollack observed on Twitter during the last blitz of promo posters, “It seems that Tim Burton has turned ‘Alice in Wonderland’ into a story about a 3D gay clown.”
That would be Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, the Bozo-haired, chartreuse-eyed oddity seen grinning in the poster but just as often fretting in the movie. (Mad? “All the best people are,” Alice tells him, reiterating some encouraging words imparted by her influential father during a hasty prologue.) There also had been a prevailing hope that Burton’s taste for such inherently gothic somber beauties as Depp and Helena Bonham Carter (the director’s main squeeze) would carry the day. And it should be said that while at times all the CG clutter nearly does Depp in, Burton also has harnessed its unlifelike absurdity to bring out the best of Bonham Carter’s tendency toward weirdly proportioned performances. Hence the hilariously shrill and huffy Red Queen, with a head way too big for her body.
It’s a mystery how these things work, or don’t. In the case of the Red Queen’s henchfreak, Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts, the actor’s own weirdness and the movie’s seem to render each other inert. The White Queen, Red’s rival sister, is a fey, pallid Anne Hathaway, unencumbered by computer effects apparently so she may flounder in the community-theater mode of “I don’t really understand my motivation but the director said to do this.”
But at least we have the hookah-puffing caterpillar played by Alan Rickman. And is that really all we need now for a Burton triumph?