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.)

Edward Everett Horton is a divinely mad Mad Hatter, with strong supporting madness from Charles Ruggles as the March Hare.

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.

30 Responses to “Paralysis in Wonderland”

  1. The problems of adapting Lewis Carroll is the same as adapting his spiritual cousin, Franz Kafka. People think they are weird when they are actually fundamentally rational and logical. Kafka is dry in his use of humour an wit where Carroll is more directly funny. I remember when I first read “Alice” and laughed to bits when she said to the mice, “Ou est ma chatte?” and the mice ran away in droves. The key line to ”Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is when at the trial at the end, Alice is horrifed by the insanity of the Queen’s bureaucracy and in her anger she says “You’re nothing but a pack of cards”. There’s something revolutionary about it. I think the ideal film-maker of ”Alice” would be Buster Keaton.

    Does the Burton version have “The Walrus and the Carpenter”, far and away the most disturbing of the asides in the books?

  2. No Walrus and Carpenter, and no Mock Turtle and Griffon to tell us about them. Both are present in the Menzies/Mankiewicz/McLeod version, with the w&c presented in animated form, illustrating the song performed this time by Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, for some reason. It’s actually nice to have the grim story come from gentler characters like the g&mt.

    I think filmmakers assume they can do anything they like with this material, since it’s “nonsense”, but mixing the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts up just doesn’t make sense. The 1933 version uses both characters, the Burton version has Helena BC as the Red Queen, but her soldiers are playing cards. The wrong kind of nonsense!

  3. The main difference is that the two works are different. ”Through the Looking Glass” is set on the other side of the mirror while ”Wonderland” is set underground. ”Looking Glass” has a chess motif while ”Wonderland” has a card motif. They are both concerned with dreams and logic but of the two works, ”Looking Glass” is less narratively focused and more digressive and experimental, while ”Wonderland” has a plot to hang on to. I read the books for the first time only recently(I was familiar with the story and read the poems seperately but never in full before) and it reminded me of Cocteau as well. Cocteau’s Orpheus films are very Carroll-esque or am I reading too much into it? He was a polymath to rival Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dodson after all.

  4. I miss Lisa Marie too — especially for her turn as herself in Bruce Weber’s Chet Baker spectacular Let’s Get Lost. But the Tim Burton Lis Mari break-up was as tumultuous as that of Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. Tons of bad feeling on both sides.

    His new Alice is indeed a mess. But who am I to argue with a $200 million opening weekend?

    A critic, that’s who. A far more endangered species than the Jabberwock.

  5. The age casting issue is one that I see in films going way back. Casting young adults as adolescents, post-adolescents as pre-adolescents, etc. I noticed it first when I was a kid and it really puzzled me then. I thought age miscasting had went away, but apparently not.

    Don’t know that I’m qualified to discuss Alice, since I only read the books as a child and saw the Paramount film over 20 years ago, but I don’t remember Alice as being “quiet, internal”, etc. Burton’s description seems to want to convert her into a spotty, confused teenager. Either he’s shilling his “new” vision or remaking Alice in his image. Neither seems a good idea, but I’m never surprised anymore by what a filmmaker will throw out from a book they’ve filmed. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

    Side note: Carole Lombard also references Barrymore – she exclaimed “I’m no Trilby!” in one scene in Twentieth Century.

  6. So glad you chose to use stills from the 1933 version, fantasy and horror films from the Twenties and early Thirties always seem to have this wonderful faraway, otherworldly look to them. I especially like the first, with the beckoning doors and the gnarled vines, and the creature in the chair, which looks so very creepy. I can easily see the connection between Carroll and Cocteau, even though it’s been at least two decades since I’ve last watched any of his films, something I’ll have to rectify. As a boy of thirteen I recall reading a short horror story featuring the Walrus and the Carpenter, in the pages of Playboy magazine no less. It also was creepy, something else I’d like to revisit. I have a problem with Burton’s overtly Goth sensibility, everything stylistically dark and morbid, it all adds up to a certain cliched shtick at the end of the day, and not much else.

  7. The creature in the chair is a leg of lamb! “Here I am!” he declares, redundantly.

    Burton’s miscasting is justified by the film’s status as a kind of sequel, but that status isn’t justified by the film taking the Alice mythology anywhere interesting or adding any new ideas.

    I think Burton works far better with his own ideas or with projects that are handed to him in a well-developed state — he didn’t change the script of Ed Wood at all, and Sweeney Todd was relatively faithful to its source. He has no gift for adaptation because he can’t distinguish between the essential and the decorative. In a way, that makes his original work more organic.

  8. I mean, hey, here’s a guy who made a film from a series of trading cards from the early Sixties (MARS ATTACKS! I remember those cards from my childhood, Burton took a very disturbing batch of often horrific imagery and fashioned it into piffle). Has a leg of lamb looked more unappetizing?

  9. Miller’s adaptation is my favorite. Anne-Marie Mallik’s performance is indeed self-absorbed, but has a spiky integrity in its refusal of ingratiating qualities. Miller was upfront about casting a sulky adolescent, believing that the story could be interpreted as passage out of childhood.

    As for the older Alice in Burton’s version, which I haven’t seen, that decision may have been prompted by the Linda Woolverton–there’s an interview with her in the New York Times where she discusses how she wanted the heroine to be as anti-Victorian as possible and “was thinking more in terms of an action-adventure film with a female protagonist”–hence the deliberate decision to cut the river of tears, and to have Alice fight the jabberwocky herself. Woolverton further explains her reasoning by saying: “I do feel it’s really important to depict strong-willed, empowered women, because women and girls need role models…Girls who are empowered have an opportunity to make their own choices, difficult choices, and set out on their own road.” A true statement showing good intentions, but the the road to (cinematic) hell is paved with the latter.

  10. Exactly. Why not rewrite Othello to make him a positive role model? The question I would ask is, what problem are you fixing by making Alice a pro-active, modern heroine? Are you arguing that the book doesn’t work? In fact, Carroll’s Alice is no push-over, and at least she doesn’t go around advising dotty aunts to seek therapy (before Freud had published).

    I quite enjoyed Mars Attacks! although the timing was a bit off throughout. The gleeful nastiness was kind of refreshing, and the anti-heroic quality was a relief from Independence Day.

  11. If I never hear the word “enpowering” again, it’ll be a happy day for me. It just seems a foolish synonym for “inspiring”.

  12. LOVE Mars Attacks! — especially Paul Winfield as Colin Powell and Jerzy Skolimowski as the scientist with the translation machine.

  13. Christopher Says:

    none of the movie Alices..or book illustrations compare to Carrol’s original little friend,Alice Liddle,who after reading books on the Christ Church gang,I would imagine a smaller scrapier,taking no prisoners,type of girl..
    Love that 1933 Leg o Lamb!

  14. Fiona points out that probably the most interesting and intelligent film response to Alice is Dennis Potter’s Dreamchild, in which Alice as an old woman (played by Coral Brown) visits New York, and revisits Wonderland and childhood in her memories.

  15. John Seal Says:

    I actually liked Big Fish. I tolerated Planet of the Apes. But Alice in Underland (as it is referred to throughout the film) is awful, for many of the reasons you cite here. I’d also note that it really made me appreciate Avatar’s technical accomplishments: I’d forgotten how bad 3-D could be.

    The film was merely awful until the comedy dance. Then it created a whole new landscape of dreadfulness. Surely the most embarrassing moment of Depp’s career…

  16. My thoughts precisely. Why does Johnny Depp want to dance like Michael Jackson?

  17. Of course it’s his head on somebody else’s body, as is painfully obvious. Another trick CGI can’t ever get right.

    The dance reminded me of the ghetto-blaster apes in Planet. Awful. Depp apparently doesn’t watch his own movies, which is wise in this case.

    Avatar handles the trick of shallow focus in 3D very well, so you never feel you’re looking at the wrong thing. Whereas that goes way wrong here, and in ways that would be annoying even if viewed flat.

  18. kevin mummery Says:

    Tim Burton is a real mixed bag for me…I haven’t liked any of his work very much since “Ed Wood”, although “Sweeney Todd” was fun in a grim sort of way. If I never have to see another picture of Johnny Depp in his ridiculous Mad Hatter makeup again, that would be great. In fact, all the hype and media-in-overdrive about this film only makes me want to see the 1933 version even more. Especially W.C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, the role he was born to play (well, Wilkins Micawber was the actual role he was born to play, but I digress)…the film stills you’ve posted could have been posted in Famous Monsters Of Filmland in about 1964, and not have seemed out of place.

  19. The ’33 version is being released in the US to cash in on Burton’s, so we can be grateful to the hideous remake for that. Fields is very good, EE Horton is slightly better, Edna May Oliver is great fun, Richard Arlen is an odd but effective choice as the Cheshire Cat. And Sterling Holloway in a brief bit as the frog footman (Menzies rehearses for The Maze?) is fabulous.

    But it’s Gary Cooper as the White Knight who really nails it.

  20. Steve Coogan delivered the Gnat’s lines perfectly I thought. There was a Through The Looking Glass on telly a few Christmasses ago, distinguished for me by some absolutely corking straight playing of the lines. Ian Holm as the White Knight was particularly impressive, although we didn’t actually get to see him fall off the horse like we do with Gary Cooper (he’s TERRIBLY good at that, Christ!). Oh here’s a bit:

    THere you go Arthur S., some Buster. Odd that. And I’m sort of fine with superannuated Alices PROVIDED THEY’RE SEXY. What else? While I think Miller’s Lear might be the best telly Shakespeare ever (SO glad someone else noticed Kitchen’s influence on Blackadder!) I really do dislike his Alice, purely because of her detachment. Her evident boredom ruins every encounter she has, and that’s all that happens: encounters… also a bit too much “Doddery” acting in keeping with Miller’s hatred of nonsense (In his audio commentary he dismissed the Disney version as ludicrous, LIKE THAT’S A BAD THING).
    And I think Svankmajer’s is funny. Sadistically so, but still…
    Dreamchild is probably my favourite Dennis Potter – again we have Ian Holm as Carrol’s surrogate – but I was quite surprised to learn that Ken Campbell only provided one of the voices in Wonderland since they ALL look like him.
    I’m sure W&TC was originally Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum’s anyway, no?

  21. The White Knight’s poem always makes me cry. I’ll have a good look at this when I’m back home with a computer with sound.

    Sexy Alices — the 1933 version probably wins. Fiona Fullerton in the 70s one is just wrong. Burton’s Alice ends up nude, like the 50ft Woman, when she enlarges at court, but it being Disney this is underplayed. Somebody once suggested Barbarella was basically Alice in Space, and it’s kind of true. Barba even talks to herself: “A scream! Lots of dramatic situations begin with screaming…” A subversively sexy Alice, like the Mike Hodges Flash Gordon, would have been a valid angle. But this movie has no angle, apart from the unsuccessful Disney princess bit.

    There’s a handsome TV Alice with Kate Burton in the lead and her dad, Richard, as the White Knight. Going to see that one next.

    Ah, Ken Campbell!

    AIW does read somewhat like “a series of encounters” I feel, although because we get her thoughts, usually we have access to her short-term goals — “Find that garden” “get out of this wood” etc.

  22. Christopher Says:

    I love Alice’s voice in the disney 50’s version,Kathryn Beaumont..
    I’ll be glad to snag a copy of the 1933 version on DVD..It used to pop up pretty regular on TV in the 60s and 70s,getting sandwiced in with the Feilds’ and the Marxs’ and Mae Wests’..I don’t think I’ve seen it since that super 8mm film abridgement I had ..

  23. Dreamchild is great, I rewatched it a few weeks ago – now-famous artist Ron Mueck did a lot of the creature design, and Ken Campbell’s turn as a foley artist is a joy to behold.

    You warned me about this, DC, so I have only myself to blame for squandering good money and babysitter fees on a night at Burton’s Pointless Alice. It really is as dull as it’s possible to ever make this story. I can’t bear to enumerate its stupidities so here’s a list of the things I enjoyed in it:

    As you say, it’s always great to see Frances de la Tour. Ditto Barbara Windsor’s voice work.

    The moat full of floating giant heads to be used as stepping-stones was an image almost out of Borowczyk.

    Crispin Glover! Always good to see him in something, even if it doesn’t really make use of his creepiness.

    The way the executioner delivers his one line to the Mad Hatter made me laugh.

    Anne Hathaway is just completely delicious from beginning to end.

    I think that’s it. About halfway through I started to think “If I see another Gothically gnarly tree, or another prop cleverly designed to embody a heart-shape, I think I will physically rip my face off and throw it at the screen, where it will slide slowly down, a strange dark shape with eye holes and a sad drooping mouth, among all the bad 3D whimsy.” Luckily I thought better of that.

  24. Totally agree with you re. Crispin Glover. My mind goes back to the scene in RIVER’S EDGE, where he’s asleep at the wheel of his car at dawn, his Volkswagen sitting diagonally with its front tires against the curb at the intersection. The knit cap, the leather jacket, the gloves with the fingers cut off, Glover’s Layne was an inspired bit of characterization, right up there with Brad Dourif’s Hazel Motes (WISE BLOOD). Wish someone would hand him a role where he could shine again.

  25. Glover is always good to see, but roles like this and Charlie’s Angels really waste his talent. He’s kind of cartoony anyway, so he works best in a more naturalistic environment. Whereas the Jonathan Miller or Ian Holm approach to the characters seems to suit Alice better, for me. Too much theatrical whimsy and it gets a bit sterile.

    And I want to see Glover in a leading man role. As with Christopher Walken, it’s the most radical and most interesting thing you can do with him.

    Oh, Fiona liked the floating heads too. Quite Ron Mueckian.

  26. The remake of Willard is surprisingly good, and Glover is perfectly cast (and seems to have actually switched on for the performance – most of his work is now just done to raise cash to pay for his scary castle/studio in Romania where he will continue to make his very evil short films. I genuinely don’t want to know what’s he’s got planned for that place, having met him briefly and seen What Is it? which is… genuinely a very screwed up piece of work.

  27. Too many ‘genuinelys’ in that sentence.

  28. I do want to see some of his stuff sometime. But I’m not sure when that is.

  29. You have to wait til he comes to town and screens it on 35mm, he’s managed to avoid ever making any digital copies so as to make a career out of being a sort of PT Barnum of weird movies. It’s well worth going along to see him I have to say.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: