Alice In Wonderland – What a conventional, average world.

Shane Murray 15 March 2010

Alice In Wonderland


Why have so many people felt compelled to try to adapt the books of Lewis Carroll? Looked at objectively, the task seems like a fool’s errand: there’s little discernible plot to speak of, much of the humour is based on pedantic wordplay, and any visualisation of the surreal landscape will walk a thin line between outrageous weirdness and camp. Carroll’s books are little more than a collection of vignettes – a structure that rarely translates well to film – with a heroine who is more annoying than heroic. I’ve never really been a fan of the books, which are hopelessly dated as surrealism in the world of David Lynch, and are dull and unfunny as novels. I can understand the appeal of them and of the Disney film to kids for a brief laugh, but why any adult chooses to take Carroll seriously is a mystery.

Yet, people said, if anyone could produce a successful, faithful adaptation, it would be Tim Burton. If anyone could get the “anarchic spirit” of the books and capture their “darkness”, it would be him. He’s so weird and crazy!  Except that he’s not. He’s not been strange, unusual or original for many years. Instead, Burton has disappeared into his own patented aesthetic, so that all of his films since Big Fish have been thoroughly predictable in terms of plot, atmosphere, and characters. Again, Burton’s taste for the weird deserves contempt not praise. His films are the conventionally surreal, formulaically quirky, and emptily beautiful. Worst of all, the dedication to the aesthetic appears to have swallowed up everything else in Burton’s films – there has been a precipitous decline in the quality of the scripts and acting in his recent films. Burton’s reputation has remained intact for three reasons: his continued visual talent (even if it is formulaic by now), the memory of his previous, excellent films like Ed Wood, and his friendship with a group of talented actors.

In that sense, Alice in Wonderland offers no surprises at all. It is a completely conventional and typical Tim Burton film that runs into all of the problems inherent in adapting Carroll’s books. It wisely takes a liberal approach to the source material, with Alice (Mia Wasikowska) having grown up and forgotten her trip to Wonderland before returning as part of an escape from a wedding proposal from a pompous boob. Once in Wonderland, she is informed that the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter) has taken over, is oppressing the people with the help of her Jabberwocky, and must be overthrown by Alice.

In that sense, one of the problems is solved, as there’s a plot to hang all of the weirdness on. However, that plot is trite and often irritatingly stupid. To begin with, the plot simply involves Alice seeking a MacGuffin (a magic sword) and then facing up to her destiny to kill the Jabberwocky – so far, so standard. To give the plot a bit of dramatic heft though, the script tries to give Alice an emotional and psychological back story – that she can take control of her life, conquer her demons, etc. Not only is this all incredibly pat and clichéd, it’s badly written, awkward, and unconvincing as well. For a long time, Alice continues to insist that she’s dreaming, when it’s patently obvious that she’s not, purely to hold up and drag out the plot. Worse, the film tries to draw a creaking parallel between her struggles in Wonderland and her attempts to escape the strictures of Victorian life, culminating in an excruciatingly bad final scene. In that sense, while solving one problem, the script creates another and by making the story serious and plot driven not only sucks the randomness from Carroll’s books, it also renders a lot of the surreal dialogue flat – the actors just sound like they’re in a rip-off of Lord of the Rings.

The visuals, on the other hand, do go some way to saving the film. With a big budget and lots of inspiration to work with, Burton was unlikely to let anyone down here. While his aesthetic may now be somewhat rote, it can still be a joy to look at and continues the only vibrancy in the film and good use is made of the 3-D technology. What is most impressive is that the 3-D actually becomes fairly unobtrusive after a while, meshing nicely with the images. However, while each frame is well-done and superficially beautiful, there are very few truly arresting or memorable images to take away from the film, and collectively, they add up to very little. Moreover, the obsession with CGI wastes the excellent caste that Burton has assembled (Depp, Bonham-Carter, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Crispin Glover, Alan Rickman Christopher Lee) by either relegating them to small parts (Lee, who has one the greatest voices in cinema, gets two whole lines) or hiding them behind CGI (you’d never know that the White Rabbit is played by Sheen unless you were told).

All in all, for a film of a surrealist book by an allegedly weird and unpredictable director, this is an unsurprisingly conventional and eventually dull film. What saves it from ignominy are the scenery-chewing performances of Depp and Bonham-Carter, and the occasionally brilliant visual work. However, it’s another step towards mediocrity for Burton (although he’s not helped by the dreadful script) and another failed attempt to adapt an unadaptable book.

Now showing at Arts Picturehouse.

Shane Murray