Paralysis in Wonderland
Nineteen-year-old Charlotte Henry as Alice in 1933. She also appears in the similarly demented BABES IN TOYLAND.
I love Lewis Carroll, and maybe as a result I’m generally iffy about filmed versions of his stuff. I like Jan Svankmajer’s ALICE, although it’s not funny, which seems to miss a lot of the point, and Jonathan Miller’s TV adaptation is beautiful and sometimes amusing, and strange, all of which is good, but it does have a very self-absorbed and unappealing central perf.
(WHY is Alice always at least five years too old?)
It’s fashionable to be snooty about the Disney animated ALICE, but I still remember how weird it made me feel as a kid, which must be a good thing. Although it seems that the kind of “zaniness” embodied by Ed Wynn’s voicing of the Mad Hatter is entirely wrong for Carroll’s queer, concussed mindscape.
A grin without a cat — played by Richard Arlen.
The Paramount ALICE IN WONDERLAND which William Cameron Menzies co-wrote (with Joseph Mankiewicz) is in all kinds of ways a fairly stupid travesty of the books — Alice doesn’t really need to go through a looking glass AND down a rabbit hole, does she? — not if we have any understanding of these moments as signifying a passage into Dream — and cluttering the thing with chess pieces AND playing cards seems likewise misguided. But the design is beautiful and the thing does have a trippy, floaty, fizzy-facky feeling throughout.
Tim Burton’s new ALICE IN WONDERLAND can’t really claim anything like that. Alternately slack and inappropriately boisterous, generic and completely broken-backed, it’s his biggest mess since, depending on your taste, BIG FISH or PLANET OF THE APES. Reading Burton’s interview in this weekend’s Guardian, it’s hard to work out what appealed to him in the material, although one might think his taste for surreal fantasy would make him a natural choice.
(It’s always dubious using a filmmaker’s own words against them, since one can’t be sure that anything said while promoting a film is sincere anyway, and the author, as they say, is dead. But Burton can be bracingly franker than most, replying to a question at the premier of APES as to whether he’d direct a sequel, with the words, “I’d rather jump out of an open window.”)
“I’ve always hated Alice on screen. She’s a very annoying, odd little girl. I wanted to make her into a character I could identify with: quiet, internal, not comfortable in her own skin, not quite knowing how to deal with things, being both young and having an old soul.” Drivel, that last stuff, but it does make me wonder if he’s read the damn book, and why he’s gone for an older Alice, making his version just like every other movie.
I’ve read reviews that name-checked Walter Murch’s disturbing, brilliant film maudit RETURN TO OZ (which is better that Burton’s film) and Spielberg’s HOOK (and even that chocolate-box infarction may be better than this mess) which both seem apt comparisons, given the new film’s device of having an older Alice return to Wonderland during a teenage crisis. (Incidentally, tiny Mairi Ella Challen is very good as the six-year-old Alice.) The remarkable thing is that Alice’s previous visit to Wonderland has no bearing on the plot, and making her older is purely a device to sell her as a Disney princess, a ghastly commercial commodification of a classic story. When you warp an already hugely successful property in order to sell toys, well, you might as well put Ewoks in it.
Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle, a name he will later bestow upon John Qualen in HIS GIRL FRIDAY (HGF director Howard Hawks had a fondness for referencing his star’s previous roles — John Barrymore in TWENTIETH CENTURY evokes just about every famous role he ever played on screen).
Shit, screenwriter Linda Woolverton actually wrote for the Ewoks TV show. She also wrote THE LION KING, a rare Disney original, and I don’t want to knock her too much because this seems like a film which has been much messed-about with. Does the Jabberwocky need to talk? No, he has nothing useful to tell us, it’s just an excuse to get Sir Christopher Lee in there as a voice. Welcome as Sir Chris is, it adds to the sense of redundancy and bloat which characterize the film. Watching is like stilt-walking through an ocean of trifle — occasionally pretty, quickly exhausting.
Johnny Depp tries hard, but the Mad Hatter as hero is such a crass misconception of the character (a bit like when Groucho and his brothers turn noble in the MGM Marx Bros. films, although at least there it was only in the final reel) that he’s left with no role to play. Helena Bonham Carter is generally fun, and it’s nice whenever the film slows down long enough to allow a bit of acting in — the performances provide the only wit here — but she should be paying royalties to Miranda Richardson, who originated this entire characterization in Blackadder II. (Incidentally, Rowan Atkinson’s turn in that show owes an enormous debt to Michael Kitchen’s interpretation of Edmund in a BBC version of King Lear, directed by… Jonathan Miller.)
But acting honours go to Anne Hathaway, channeling the spirit of Lisa-Marie (whose presence in Burton’s films I kind of miss), particularly her weird physical acting in MARS ATTACKS! With very little to work with, she manages to create some actual fun, and her playing of the White Queen as hideously self-absorbed and uncaring actually subverts the whole good-versus-evil plot, which is one of the screenplay’s lamest inventions.
Look: Alice is a sensible little girl stuck in a nonsensical world. What’s difficult about that? It is, in fact, something all little kids can identify with, hence the need for her to be, like, little.
By the way: Burton hasn’t got any consistent angle on what to do with 3D. The opening stuff in reality was originally shot flat, and then converted at great expense, but it doesn’t look particularly deep. The trip down the rabbit hole should be an explosion of colour and depth, but it’s just loud and incoherent, not because of the 3D but because of lousy filming. Some possibly-interesting props fly past, but we don’t get to register ANY of them. And what made the fall magical and weird in the book is that it was slow — this breakneck descent isn’t actually any different to what Burton could shoot for BATMAN or PLANET OF THE APES.
The editing, apparently completed just in time for the premier, is astonishingly sloppy, especially in the opening sequences. The real-world stuff makes no sense (China was opened up for export long before this — and what’s Alice going to be trading, opium?), although it’s nice to see Frances De La Tour. Her dotty old maid is the only character in the real world who seems both happy and honest, so naturally Alice advises her to get therapy.
There is also a “comedy dance” which I find deeply offensive.
“Here I am!” — perhaps my favourite line in the film.
I’m illustrating this piece with stills from the Menzies-designed film because I don’t think I could bear looking at any more images from Burton’s garish soup. It’s 108 minutes! That’s too long for ANY film of Alice, since without a narrative spine (Carroll doesn’t feel the need for one and Woolverton fails to graft one on) you’ve got to be really good to keep the audience focussed across the various episodes. Fellini managed it in SATYRICON, but even Svankmajer’s ALICE is only 86 mins.
Here’s one reason I think people get Alice wrong so much — many of the jokes, situations and characters are very familiar and it’s easy to take them for granted or else mess with them without a clear idea of why they are the way they are. But here’s a less familiar bit —
‘Crawling at your feet,’ said the Gnat (Alice drew her feet back in some alarm), ‘you may observe a Bread-and-Butterfly. Its wings are thin slices of Bread-and-butter, its body is a crust, and its head is a lump of sugar.’
‘And what does it live on?’
‘Weak tea with cream in it.’
A new difficulty came into Alice’s head. ‘Supposing it couldn’t find any?’ she suggested.
‘Then it would die, of course.’
‘But that must happen very often,’ Alice remarked thoughtfully.
‘It always happens,’ said the gnat.
I think that’s funny, anyway. Burton’s film includes Carroll’s Rocking-horse-fly and Dragon-fly, which are usually left out (along with the poor Gnat), but neglects to include any funny lines. I don’t want to be melodramatic and say “This will kill 3D!” But it’s not going too far to say that if anything could, this would.