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Monday, March 8, 2010

Howard Waldrop & Lawrence Person review Alice in Wonderland

Both: This must have looked like a really good idea on paper.

Lawrence Person: Another week, another visually-impressive-but-thematically-empty remake. This is better than The Wolfman, but not as interesting as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. They tried to graft a standard Plot Coupon fantasy quest onto what was a surreal dreamscape lacking any narrative spine. Big mistake.

Howard Waldrop: The only problem is, it's Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, not Carroll's (of course, you could say the same thing about all versions, from the 1933 all-star one to Disney's 1951 animated feature.)

In this one, Alice's story has become tied to the quest to defeat the Jabberwock. There's a high-Victorian backstory that pokes some fun at 19th century expectations, and Alice is in her early 20s. This all adds nothing to the original going-to-sleep-on-a–picnic setup for a younger girl.

LP: The framing device is all kinds of wrong: 1) It's dull and slows the movie down; 2) Unlike The Wizard of Oz, there's no correspondence between real and dreamland characters; 3) It's a work of distinct moral cowardice. By holding up the mores of 19th century English high society for 21st century American audiences to feel smugly superior to, nothing in the film challenges its target audience's beliefs in even the slightest way. (Laugh while you can; some 120 years hence, you'll look every bit as stupid and prejudiced a rube as Lord Ascot the Younger looks here.)

HW: The visuals are of course pretty good. All the trappings of Alice's Adventure in Wonderland (and a little of Through the Looking Glass) are here. It reminded me in many ways of the Dennis Potter Dreamchild (1985), where the Alice story was used (both biography and fiction) to make some real observations about the nature of dreams.

The characters are here: the movie tries to make daylight sense out of what essentially is a dream-narrative, to not very great effect. Placing the Jabberwock quest over the Wonderland narrative makes things both clearer and more diffuse at the same time.

LP: Once it becomes your stand good-vs.-evil dynastic succession plot, the whole thing is on rails and the movie has no more surprises left up its sleeves. Alice dithers over picking up the vorpal sword, but no one over the age of 14 will have the slightest doubt what she'll choose in the end. (China Miéville's Un-Lun-Dun, in which a secondary character becomes incensed at being relegated to the Funny Sidekick role in the Grand Prophecy and short circuits the entire creaky machination, has more courage in its little finger than this has in the entire movie.)

And stripped of their dream-logic, many elements cease to be surreal and start becoming deeply stupid. Why can't Alice just chow down enough Eat Me to grow big enough to crush the Jabberwock like a bug? If the Cheshire Cat can materialize and dematerialize at will, why not let him retrieve the vorpal sword? Etc.

HW: Depp's role (the Mad Hatter) is ill-defined on the Wonderland level, but okay within Burton's narrative. He's not mad enough on one level, but over-the-top in others. It just doesn't go far enough to bring across the mercury-poisoned pathos of the book. (The Henson Workshop creature of Dreamchild did.)

LP: Depp's Hatter switches between a sort of High English Twee and a vaguely menacing Bobbie Burns-esque brogue. Like most of his non-realistic roles, his portrayal is an odd choice that he somehow makes work though his complete mastery of the character's exterior qualities.

HW: Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen is a one-note storybook Evil Older Sister role (so's the book's Queen). I'm sure it's not all that easy to act when your head, like Betty Boop's, is wider than your shoulders (or so it seems).

LP: In many ways the relish with which Carter's Red Queen devours the virtual scenery is one of the best things about the film. She obviously had fun with the role, and there's something supremely satisfying about the line "Prepare the Jabberwock for war!" (Now if only she and the Knave of Hearts didn't keep reminding me of the video for Lady Gaga's "Paparazzi"...)

Sadly, Mia Wasikowska's Alice doesn't have the presence to carry the movie. She's not the main problem, but she doesn't come across as a particularly strong protagonist, and she lacks real chemistry with Depp's pseudo-love-interest Hatter.

HW: Christopher Lee voiced the Jabberwock's resident-evil lines, and Michael Gough's dodo's pretty good, and even has the cane right out of Tenniel's illustrations. (Must have seemed like Hammer Films in 1962 on the set.) The voices are mostly just right (although I miss Percy Helton's squeaking White Rabbit from the 1951 Disney movie).

LP: Any movie version of Alice in Wonderland sets itself up for a difficult task, namely to recapture the mixture of whimsy and menace a young reader has upon first encountering the book. (Which is why, on paper, a Tim Burton version must have looked like such a sure thing, as Beetle Juice and A Nightmare Before Christmas both come so close to the sort of balance a successful version would require.) All movie adaptations of it fail for one reason or another; Burton's Wonderland fails because the linear nature of the plot derails the head-long, out-of-control dream-logic of the original, the feeling of being plunged into a world where nothing makes any sense and things keep changing too fast to escape. It fails because it's ultimately entirely too predictable and safe. When you can make friends with the Bandersnatch, Wonderland has all the menace of a trip to Hot Topic.

HW: This reminded me of nothing so much as Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm, a movie I don't generally like. Stunning, in some cases, visuals (I saw it flat). [LP: I saw it in 3D IMAX, and wished I hadn't, as the 3D actually made it harder to focus on what was going on; the scene of her falling down the rabbit hole was particularly annoying. And for all the ballyhoo around the "new" 3D, it still looks more like receding lines of successive planes (like a Renaissance trompe l'oeil backdrop) than real life. Unless you're a fan of the technique, I don't think the extra money is worth it.] The wrong (but a similar) story with all the characters used in a revisionist way. It's not a mess, it's just not Lewis Carroll, either.

This is not the book: it's the book's little brother.

Howard Waldrop's latest books are Other Worlds, Better Lives: Selected Long Fiction, 1989 - 2003 and Things Will Never Be the Same: Selected Short Fiction 1980-2005, from Old Earth Books. Locus Magazine interviewed Waldrop in its November 2003 issue.

Lawrence Person is a science fiction writer living in Austin, Texas. His work has appeared in Asimov's, Fantasy & Science Fiction, Analog, Postscripts, Jim Baen's Universe, Fear, National Review, Reason, Whole Earth Review, The Freeman, Science Fiction Eye, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and, as well as several anthologies. He also edits the Hugo-nominated SF critical magazine Nova Express and runs Lame Excuse Books.

Directed by Tim Burton

Written by Linda Woolverton (screenplay)

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse, Timothy Spall

Official Website: Alice in Wonderland: Characters

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Blogger alicia said...

Even going into this movie with the idea that it was Tim Burton's Alice instead of Lewis Carrol couldn't save the film. It was just plum not a good flick. It's not even the book's little brother; maybe it's the book's really uncharming ugly step-cousin twice removed who happened to have the same name.

March 16, 2010 10:36 AM  

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