Last weekend, I went to see Alice in Wonderland for oddly practical reasons. With How to Train Your Dragon coming out this weekend in 3-D, and the limited number of 3-D-capable screens available, I knew I was going to miss my window to see it if I didn’t hurry up. (And I’ll probably go see Dragon for two reasons: it’s co-directed by Chris Sanders, who was responsible for my beloved Lilo and Stitch, and it stars (as key voices) Jay Baruchel and Craig Ferguson, whom I both like. But I digress.)
The following collects some of my thoughts on Alice in Wonderland. It’s not a real review, because honestly, if you hear “Tim Burton, Johnny Depp, fractured fairy tale”, you know what to expect — a visual feast with some weird twists — and whether or not you’ll like it. It’s very much in keeping with their other work in redoing classic stories, a creepy cruel take layered over a familiar structure, which removes the need for them to do all of the storytelling themselves.
The movie has three main sections. The first, showing Alice’s life in Victorian England, was by far my favorite. I appreciated how it tackled how few choices there were for an imaginative young woman in that place and time period. (Basically: marry well or depend on charity while your relatives pity you.) The people (who are just supposed to be lords and ladies) looked like fantasy characters in their own right; I was surprised that their exaggerated faces weren’t reflected in the Wonderland characters, although KC thought that that would be too much like The Wizard of Oz. This section was very different from the source material, although not in a bad way.
(Isn’t it strange that Disney gives creators the intellectual freedom to reinvent well-known stories while denying it to those who want to riff on their creations?)
The second part is all the weirdness, the CGI effects and creatures and such. This is what everyone goes to see. Watching, it made me think that we’re getting the movies we deserve. Studios adore 3-D because they can charge more while not providing much more. Plus, the films drag people out to the theater, since the experience can’t yet be replicated at home. To suit the medium, we get lots of astoundingly unreal pretty pictures that you can’t grasp in only one viewing. (KC went to see this first, and then he went again with me after telling me that he thought I’d like it and he would be happy to see it again.) So you need to pay the increased prices and then again buy the DVD to truly appreciate the many details inserted in the fantasy world.
Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter anchors the quest story about overthrowing the crazed Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), maddened by the size of her deformed head. Some of the imagery is rather grotesque, and the need to give non-Carrollian bizarre names to everything was creativity run amok. Some of the symbolism/allegory in the original was lost, and some characters — most obviously, the Dodo — just disappear from the film.
The last third is an action/disaster movie, in which the Queens clash and Alice fights the Jabberwock. I wasn’t sure this was in keeping with the mood of the rest of the film, and some of the bits I just found stupid. For example, the Hatter’s dance is what will date the movie worst. Overall, there was more sex and death here than I expected from a Disney film, a darker take (both in mood and visuals) that surprised me. Some of the imagination of the original has been replaced by violence (with a recurring “injury to the eye” theme as well).
Alice is thrown around a lot. And more disturbingly, she doesn’t free or help anyone directly, except at the very end. When she hears about someone held unfairly in slavery, I expected her to do something about it, especially when she could have easily freed them (as with the Bandersnatch). The result was an oddly disconnected heroine, who is “done to” more than “doing”.
The movie fixates on including those bits everyone knows (Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Mad Tea Party), perhaps too much. It’s a very commercial production, designed to move from high point to high point, satisfying the audience with greater and greater visual achievement.