Alice in Wonderland falls through the rabbit hole and into the 21st Century
The story and visuals of Lewis Carrol’s Alice in Wonderland have long been such an important part of my imagination’s development, and I couldn’t help but be mightily intrigued by the idea of a brand new version being directed by Tim Burton. I grew up with the original illustrations that were created by John Tenniel in 1865, and Arthur Rackham in 1907. And of course Disney’s version that came out in 1951.
These amazing images and mysterious story lines have always been with me, and have shaped the way I see the world. So I prepared myself to be disappointed by the new version directed by Tim Burton. The film’s trailer that I saw, looked garish and disturbing at first glance. I did not think that this remake could possibly live up to my expectations, especially considering that I haven’t exactly been bowled over by Mr. Burton’s latest efforts. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Corpse Bride, and Sweeny Todd, although each with some great moments, were sadly unmemorable for me. And I found myself moaning at the fact that Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter were in this film. Like Woody Allen, Burton has a penchant for using the same actors over and over, and quite frankly, I find it quite tiresome. Depp has appeared in no less than seven Burton films, and the lovely Helena Bonham Carter, Burton’s partner, has appeared in six. But maybe I’m being a bore. I must mention here, that I am a huge fan of Tim Burton’s work, and I can’t imagine the landscape of filmmaking without him in it! Thank God for Tim, he has made films a lot more fun for everyone!
There’s nothing I love more than being wrong about a film like this. I walked in to a small theatre in the country, for a weekday matinee screening, ready to be disappointed. To my surprise, the theatre was quite full of parents and little children, and the place was buzzing noisily. I thought I’d be enduring the experience over the chatter of wee ones. Being a small theatre in the boonies, there was no 3D screening being offered, but I’m OK with that. (more on that later)
From the opening scenes, to the end of the film, I was thoroughly engaged and delighted. What can I say? I loved it! Who woulda thunk it? Not I. And now that I have had time to digest it, and look at it objectively, I can see exactly how and why Tim Burton managed to strike a chord in me with this film. (I’ll talk primarily about the visual aspects of the film first, story and animation later)
I have always had a soft spot in my heart for the Disney version of Alice. Seeing it for the first time when I was extremely young and impressionable, it left a strong imprint on my imagination. With fantastic designs (helped out by no less than Salvador Dali) and a witty, slightly twisted script (for Disney) Disney’s Alice in Wonderland held a very sacred and special place in my memory. But so did all the original artwork created by Tenniel and Rackham, although lodged perhaps, in the deeper recesses of my memory.
What Burton did, was draw more heavily on the classic images of Tenniel, Rackham and other artists like Jesse Wilcox Smith, and Marshal Vandruff, and I think that is why everything I saw resonated with me so well.
As I began to do my homework and look at the Alice illustrations that had inspired me so as a child, I found again and again, that Burton had truly honored the original visions on Alice’s world, many created in the 1800’s!
Alice herself, is absolutely captivating in this film, played brilliantly by Mia Wasikowska. Looking now at the earlier illustrations of Alice in Wonderland, particularly those of Arthur Rackham (my favorites) it is easy to see that this is by far the most accurate and delightful version of Alice that we have ever seen. Although Alice in the Disney version, was a little edgy by Disney standards at the time, she is awfully clean, and never really disheveled. And Mia does disheveled brilliantly.
The White Rabbit? Well, he couldn’t have been done much better. (Although a plaid jacket would have been a nice touch!)Looking back at the original pen and ink drawings by John Tenniel, one can see that he is really spot on, much like the original. And he seems to be psychologically twisted up inside, rather than simply in a great big hurry for no particular reason, like the Disney version. The frumpy little fellow in the Disney film now seems quaint by comparison. (Although I’m sure many of you aren’t comfortable with all this comparing of apples and oranges anyways, right?)
The ‘hookah smoking caterpillar’ is a haunting and creepy version, and I thought he was very much inspired by the art of Marshal Vandruff and Arthur Rackham. I must say though, that the previous Disney version in this case, was utterly superb, and very closely designed like the original version of illustrator John Tenniel. In Disney’s version, the way the caterpillar blew his smoke into letters and hallucinatory shapes, has never left me throughout my entire life. While the smoke in Burton’s version was gorgeous and eloquently done, of course it had none of the life of Disney’s version. I am thinking that Burton intentionally decided not to go near that, and start spelling words with CGI smoke. After all, it’s been done, and beautifully.
The Cheshire cat, well, what can I say? My first glimpse of it in the film’s trailer made my blood run cold. It seemed hideous, bulgy eyed and creepy as hell. But then I looked back at the original illustrations, and I’ll be damned if they aren’t bulgy eyed and creepy! And the more I watched this latest version, the more I liked it. Cheshire cat grew on me quite quickly, and now when I look at the Disney version, I find him quite lame, looking like he stumbled out of the later Disney film ‘The Aristocats’, and through a bucket of cel paint!
Tim Burton’s Cheshire Cat is bang on with the original versions illustrated back in the 1800’s. And the visual effects that surrounded Cheshire as he appeared and disappeared were masterfully done, absolutely gorgeous! This character grew on me as the film progressed, and in the end, I love him!
Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter? I wasn’t thrilled with the idea. I love Johnny Depp, and his quirky acting style as much as the next person, but I was expecting pretty much a Pirate-like-Sleepy-Hollow-meets-Willy Wonka-meets-Sweeny-Todd-re-hash of sorts. But like the Cheshire Cat, Depp’s Mad Hatter grew on me, even though I really couldn’t understand a word he said for the first few minutes he is on screen. As much as I had tired of Johnny’s characters in previous films, for some reason this guy seemed really fresh, and I found myself enjoying his performance utterly, in spite of my skeptical self!
Once again, it felt like Burton had breathed new life into a old character, and now when I look at the Disney Mad Hatter, he just seems silly. (but I still love him)
And then there’s Helena Bonham Carter as The Red Queen. Here again, the trailer gave me the willies, and I wasn’t looking forward to this version, but ultimately, I think her design was spot on, and Ms, Carter did a fabulous job of being uniquely freaky, without being overly derivative. It was her acting that really made it for me. Small, subtle little things that she did with her character that gave her depth and humor, rather than just going for a menacing bitch. Carter's Red Queen has a vulnerable side that is not quite hidden, and I liked that a great deal. I almost felt sympathy for her, but it still felt good to see her and her sidekick, the Knave of Hearts, get their just desserts.
The bobble head thing, well, when I first saw it, I thought, Oh NO! But at the end of the day, it looks more like the original illustrations than anything else I’ve seen, and it made for some good punny funny stuff, that I enjoyed in spite of myself.
Tweedledum and Tweedledee, are perhaps the most altered of all the characters, compared to the original illustrated versions, but they are a marked improvement, I think, on the silly cap-wearing originals. Although they are very creepy, there is something much more appealing about them, and I could actually feel empathy for them, whereas the originals were just downright creepy and not likeable at all. I like these guys, and, like so much of the film, they grew on me with time….
Crispin Glover as The Knave of Hearts, well, he was one of the least memorable characters in the film as far as I’m concerned. That wasn’t helped much by the fact that his CGI animation was quite poorly done, and was stiff and jerky much of the time. And I couldn’t help but wonder why Burton chose not to use real horses, as the horses didn’t have to ‘act’ per se, and their animation was awkward, giving them away as CGI elements in an otherwise very smoothly put together film.
Oh, and least I forget, Anne Hathaway is brilliant as the Red Queen’s sickeningly sweet sister, The White Queen. Playing her part with a subtle touch of sarcasm and irony, Hathaway is magnetic whenever she is on the screen. It is hard to take your eyes off of her ridiculously enormous mouth, or her hilariously contrived hand gestures. A perfect 10 for this performance!
The Jabberwocky, was quite true to John Tenniel’s original pen and ink drawings, and provided a wonderful ‘boss’ type horrible creature to wind up the film’s wonderland episode. Dynamic, exciting and fun to look at, I don’t think the Jabberwocky could have been done much better. Wonderful animation of an extremely complex CGI character!
Story wise, I have to give this adaptation of Alice in Wonderland a pretty big thumbs up as well. Alice was more than ever portrayed as a Victorian girl determined to question the morals and values of her stifling world. And as she was so beautifully acted by Mia Wasikowska, I found it easy to fall in love with her and fall right down the rabbit hole with her. Her gradual frustration with the idea that she was somehow not the ‘real’ Alice, progressed nicely throughout her time in Wonderland. She found her strength as the film unfolded, and actually looked very much at home in her shining armor, ready to conquer the terrifying Jabberwocky. And it was wonderful to see her stand up to her family and peers once back home, as Alice in the Disney classic had failed to do. At the time that Disney’s version was created, they were pushing the envelope just by making Alice an independent and proud little girl. I suppose it was too much to ask back then, that she should actually come out of her Wonderland experience with the mettle and strength to stand up to the stodgy Victorian values that had so stifled her natural creative impulses.
And from an animation standpoint, the vast majority of the character animation and visual effects were masterfully executed, with the sad exception of the aforementioned Knave of Hearts, whose stiff and awkward animation made me think of Ralph Bakshi’s horribly rotoscoped Orcs in his wretched bastardization of ‘J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings’ produced in 1978. And why Burton decided to go with CGI horses, I’ll never know, as real horses would have done the job magnificently.
A short note on the 3D phenomenon. I went to see this film in a small theatre where 3D screenings are not available, and I’m OK with that. 3D is cool, for sure, but I still find it distracting and uncomfortable. Ultimately, it still feels like a bit of a gimmick to me, although I understand that it is the way things are going. As long as I have to wear special glasses and watch on a flat screen, it will fall short for me. Maybe this will change with time as the technology improves, but that’s my schtick and I’m schticking with it!
All in all, I was completely caught off guard by how much I liked this film. I hope that there are some of you out there who didn’t care for it, because I fear that maybe I am looking at it through the rose coloured glasses of a romantic long time fan of the original story and illustrations.