Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland: Madly Overrated

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“If I had a world of my own, everything would be nonsense. Nothing would be what it is, because everything would be what it isn’t. And contrary wise, what is, it wouldn’t be. And what it wouldn’t be, it would.”

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll, 1865

 

Adaptation is always a tricky business. In theory, a good adaptation captures the spirit and intent of the original source material, but a good adaptation and a good story are not one and the same. It is possible that one person may expand on another’s idea and come up with something better, but fundamentally different, and it’s easy for someone like me to pick and choose which “unfaithful adaptations” to get self-righteously angry at and which ones to let slide.

I admit that. What I don’t like admitting is that sometimes, it really just comes down to “I didn’t like it.” I like to give a better rationale when possible, but sometimes that’s all you’ve got.

But thankfully, I’m not asking you to agree with me. I’d like to think I have a point here or there, but these are just my frustrations and my conclusions.

I am a pretty firm believer that, generally speaking, consequences are more important than intent. A man might walk an old lady across the street out of the goodness of his heart, but if she gets hit by a car or has an accident in the process, what happened (say, he tried to push her out of harm’s way and cracked her head on the pavement instead) will matter more in court than how it happened. The near same can be said for artists and creators; their intent definitely matters, but if the entire world draws a different message from their work than they intended, that is going to be the more long-lasting influence. It’s even more muddled when no one can agree on the author’s original intent; many creators like to make things interpretable and thought-provoking, at the risk of being labeled “too high brow.”

As a creator and media appreciator myself, I accept that what is given isn’t always what’s received or appreciated, but I do find it more than a little frustrating and disheartening at times.

The 1951 adaptation Alice in Wonderland is one of my favorite Disney movies; top 5 easily. It is by no means a point-for point retelling, but it meanders episodically, keeps things zany and interesting, introduces memorable characters, and adds a bit more development to Alice herself, who doesn’t realize she is dreaming in the movie.

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Though she doesn’t have a lot of personality (unlike in parts of the book), Kathryn Beaumont’s Alice makes an excellent straight-man reacting to the other characters, and her worries and frustrations that she might never get home are very relatable; literally and metaphorically being stuck in a world that makes no sense, where you have no control over anything. And, as Doug Walker pointed out in his Disneycemeber series, the characters of Wonderland are fun, but you’re never quite sure how dangerous they really are, which really adds to the atmosphere.

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From what I’ve learned, it’s not such as shame that this movie became perhaps the most iconic adaptation of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in the public consciousness. The Cheshire Cat, voiced by Sterling Holloway, is one of my favorite Disney characters of all time, despite the fact that he is a certifiable dick who nearly gets a little girl murdered. I also like the minimalist approach to the backgrounds at times; instead of overcrowding the frame with giant mushrooms and a sugar-high’s worth of psychedelic colors, there is a lot of black and simplicity, which makes the encounters with each character more memorable.

That said, and again, in theory, an adaptation succeeds when it captures the original’s heart. If I may add to that sentiment, it should also inspire the audience to check out the source material, and not just to catalogue all of the stuff that the adaptor got wrong.

Well, folks, for every person who gets a headache fussing over the changes made in the 1951 film, Tim Burton’s adaptation will give them a splitting migraine.

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I went to the theatres to see it when it came out in 2010. I am a casual Burton fan, and I was eager to see a fresh interpretation of a classic story, but even if it’s technically “fresh” by Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’s standards, it relies too heavily on Burton’s overused style and formula.

Eccentric outfits? Check, although you might argue that is less of a stretch in Wonderland. I would argue back that the animals all wore things like waistcoats and the wildest thing about them was the color scheme, but whatever.

Johnny Depp and/or Helena Bonham Carter? Check.

Hot Topic fodder? Check-a-roo.

More focus on the cinematography and costumes than on actual character or story?

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Oh hell check.

But even if I could roll with all of this, Burton chose a by-the-books prophecy plot that would make even Harry Potter roll his eyes, and he tried to make this a good vs evil war movie.

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…I’m sorry. Aren’t you guys all mad here? Why in the name of Tulgey Wood would you give a crap about who rules Wonderland? There shouldn’t be a group massing behind a common cause unless it’s running for a caucus race! The only “rule” in the first book is to obey the queen, because divine right or whatever…

Instead, Tim Burton wrote “Joan of Arc meets AiW”, which doesn’t make any sense, and I shouldn’t even be complaining that things make no sense in Wonderland!

Alice herself is a boring cardboard standee with a portable carrying handle that wished upon a star to become a real boy. So okay, she’s a self-insert fantasy for the audience. Fine.

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Her “backstory” and “character development” are uninteresting, unfunny, cliché, and rushed; literally, it’s so quick and glanced over that it’s laughable. The movie is so anxious to get to Wonderland, does nothing really with it, and then rushes her “empowerment” in the real world at the end.

She’s apparently not dreaming either. Wonderland isn’t even called Wonderland, it’s called Underland, and she’s not even going there for the first time, which might be interesting if she was an interesting character. But she’s not.

The scenery would be more creative if it didn’t look so obviously fake. I repeat, Movie Producers: CG SHOULD ACCOMPANY ACTUAL PRACTICAL EFFECTS! IF IT DOESN’T, YOU MIGHT AS WELL JUST HAND-DRAW THE DAMN THINGS FOR ALL THE BELIEVABLE “REALNESS” WE SEE!

"We threw up these backgrounds in photoshop and DAMN IT WE ARE GOING TO USE THEM!
“We threw up these backgrounds in photoshop and DAMN IT WE ARE GOING TO USE THEM!

 

And again, my biggest problem is that everyone should be mad but they aren’t. The best I could call them is “quirky”, and even then, it’s in heavy quotations because it’s trademarked “Burton quirkiness”.

Listen, Burton, as much as I appreciate you trying to celebrate weirdness and “going against the grain”, all you’re doing at this point is changing the direction. Especially by making everyone the same brand and only distinguishing them at all through character design; you might as well just have a bunch of Johnny Depp Mad Hatters wandering around.

But yeah; if everyone is quirky, and moreover, the exact same degree and type of quirkiness, then they aren’t quirky anymore. They’re all normal.

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Any real-world person would start to find the denizens of Underland (words cannot describe how much I hate that name) annoying or at the very least frustrating after a while, but not Vacant-Stare, Whiter-than-the-Brady-Bunch Alice. The film tries to pass her off like she’s progressive, quirky, and interesting, but it tells instead of shows, and I just don’t buy it. She barely fills a basic storytelling slot and offers nothing else to the film.

Even the fight with the Jabberwocky is boring. Come on, Burton, you got Christopher Lee in one of your films yet again, and again, you give him nothing to do! He’s just a voice to be intimidating on a creature who, while admittedly well-designed, gets literally 5 minutes of screen time!

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Instead, we get Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter being themselves. In goofy make-up and CGI enlargements…Yipee skipee. I’ve never seen that before.

It’s not like they’re even that good or interesting. Depp can’t even pick a consistent accent, and Carter is just a fetishized Verna Felton, who should be choking on all that lead in her face powder by now.

Overall, it’s a typical gritty Hollywood remake; a style-over-substance “reimaging” more than a legit adaptation. But give it some credit; at least it’s called Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland; it didn’t have the gall that Illumination Entertainment did when it titled its movie Dr. Seuss’s The Lorax, despite cramming the plot of the book into roughly 5 minutes before padding out the rest of it with preachy hypocrisy and self-insert characters for the pointless celebrity voice actors.

But I digress…and now I still have to distinguish between Disney’s movie and Disney’s…other movie.

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It’s still stale, despite its popularity and success at the box office. I’m convinced that the only reason it is so popular is that it panders to every misunderstood “weird” kid out there. It doesn’t really challenge anyone, which if you really wanted to celebrate “free thinking” and the breaking from tradition, Burton, you would have done. You’re not creating a safe-space for weirdos to feel good about themselves. You’re coddling them and telling them, “Don’t think about it too hard.”

I like Burton best when he’s doing his own thing. I particularly love Corpse Bride; it’s one of my favorite movies to break out every Halloween. But practically every time he adapts someone else’s work, he either comes close to hitting the mark or so far surpasses it in the name of stamping his signature fixations all over it. The closest-to-good adaptation of his, in my opinion, was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but even then, what the heck was up with the father subplot and Depp acting like Michael Jackson?!

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Where is the real effort? The real imagination? Where did it go, Burton? What did you think was the point of the original book you named your movie after? I’d really like to know.

Burton’s Alice in Wonderland  tries to cram rules and formula into a world that flourishes without them, and guess what? The more you try to make something logical (in this case, trying to establish why a bunch of loonies care about who sits on a throne, eats tarts, and occasionally sentences people to murder), the more people will call you out for lack of sense.

The motivations of the characters are very inconsistent, and not in an “I’m mad” sort of way; there is a fine line between mad and stupid. Although, Burton certainly captured the murderous asshole tendencies of the Queen from the 1951 cartoon pretty well.

"I stole a circus clown's dirty laundry and shredded it before putting it on inside out and backwards. That gives me personality, right?"
“I stole a circus clown’s dirty laundry and shredded it before putting it on inside out and backwards. That gives me personality, right?”

 

A sequel is coming to theatres later this month, and it bears the name of the second book while presumably having nothing to do with the plot of said book. I’m willing to bet there will be more crazy outfits, painful CG-eyesore backgrounds, character designs that would make anime characters point and laugh, and, of course, more waxing poetic about being yourself even at the cost of being ostracized. Or, you know, thrown in an asylum.

I predict that Alice will again learn virtually nothing except that she should either move to Underland permanently or ease up on the Vicodin.

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If you have a Burton fix that needs addressing, I recommend Big Eyes. It’s not the best movie I’ve ever seen, but hey, it’s interesting and somewhat biographical (because all such movies embellish a bit). An artistic character with an established personality overcomes a very real adversity and is justly rewarded for her efforts in the end. See? Already, that’s a much better story.

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is an affront to all things creative, as well as its namesake. It’s not just bad, it’s unsatisfying, which is far worse than being the former. If it makes someone out there happy, then yay; it’s not a complete waste of space at least.

But of all the live-action Disney remakes foolishly hoping to cash in and maybe overshadow the animated classics, this is by far the most shallow and loathsome. It is neither a good substitution nor a good adaptation; it just piggybacks off of Lewis Carol’s concept art for a quick and easy buck. Not even his story; his concept art.

 

2/10

*Please support the original books or the 1951 film. Or any other Alice film for that matter. None of the pictures or gifs belong to me.

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