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What a regrettably large head you have.

Movie

 Alice in Wonderland
(2010)

 

I suspect I was more charitable to Tim Burton’s kind-of “sequel” to, I guess, Alice Through the Looking Glass on first viewing, as it had already been weighed down by critical brickbats (ineffective at denting its $1bn+ worldwide box office, surfing the nascent 3D wave as it was). A revisit confirms many of the complaints nursed by its maligners.

That said, I take a rather different position to those that claim Burton has lost all his gothic weirdness in the last decade or so; that he is now just a commercialised parody of his early, offbeat sensibilities. Burton was always an incredibly hit-and-miss, ungainly filmmaker and I’m not sure that his clout these days has had any great impact on that. Probably he does play it too safe, both in choices of projects (remakes and known properties) and actors (the ever-present Helena and Johnny). But I remember finding Beetlejuice a disappointment on first viewing (a heinous admission I know; I should qualify this by advising that I now consider it possibly his best film), and failed to comprehend why everyone was going so crazy for his sluggish, poorly-choreographed Batman (I still find that one entirely mediocre).

And, to go against the grain further, I don’t think his Planet of the Apes remake is all that bad. It looks great, the ape design is terrific, and it was willing to go in a different direction to a straight reboot. The problem there is that it has nothing of Burton’s sensibility about it, and the least-Burton leading man ever in Mark Wahlberg at his most plankish. Since then, it’s only his big hits that have really left me non-plussed. I thought Big Fish was up there with his best work, Dark Shadows underrated and Sweeney Todd admirably grand guignol (it’s just the songs that stink, admittedly a not insignificant problem).

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was an utterly tepid remake that saw Burton fully embrace his predilection for art direction over story. It also gave us Depp indulging in a misfiring Whacko Jacko impersonation that had none of the slightly deranged charisma of Gene Wilder in the original. Crucially, it abandoned the third act twist that made the film an improvement on Roald Dahl’s book (Dahl never being much of one for morals of tales, and I might agree with him but in this case it added needed form and weight to the story).

And so, with massive success for his first out-and-out family movie, why not return to the well? And if there’s some twist in a take on classic material so you can claim it isn’t a straight remake, so much the better. Picking up on Alice thirteen years later isn’t necessarily a bad idea (it worked for Jim Hawkins in John Silver’s Return to Treasure Island!) but it needs to have something going for it beyond “Alice meets all the old crew”. And beyond her dissatisfaction with the adult world being reflected in the decaying and decidedly un-wondrous land she fetches up in. There is a germ of a good idea there, but what is done with it is so obvious and unimaginative as to make one despair (what a surprise that the message is that all the best people are mad! – ironic in a film that is creatively so unadventurous).

How about, instead of the death of childhood being made literal as the death of Wonderland (now Underland – how inspired!), Linda Woolverton came up with something fresh. Such as the world Alice happens upon this time being even stranger and more twisted (especially since the Alice we see at the outset appears to have retained her imaginative and idiosyncratic qualities in surroundings that do not welcome such traits)? Well, Woolverton may have a chance to make it all right, as she is scribbling a sequel.

Apparently, Burton saw this as a “re-imagining” rather than a direct sequel. But then, he was wont to come out will all sorts of guff in interviews at the time, such as decrying the lack of “emotional connection” in the books (as if his film somehow rectifies this, rather being exactly the series of events he criticises Carroll for writing). It’s not necessarily a requirement that you love the work you reinvent (J J Abrams did a good job with Star Trek and had little time for it previously), but this impulse to decry the inspiration for your project should really be avoided by filmmakers.

So the basic set-up isn’t completely without merit; Alice, attending a garden party and having just received an unwanted marriage proposal, pursues a white rabbit and falls down a hole, from whence to Underland. She meets various old acquaintances (whom she does not recognise as she cannot recall her past visit(s)) and is told that she (or the “right Alice”) is foretold to slay the Jabberwocky, servant of the Red Queen. Once the Red Queen learns of Alice’s return, she demands for her to be found.

But the notes struck by Woolverton are strictly pedestrian, driving the tale towards a big climactic fight sequence with a monster, so as to draw closer parallels with Tolkien than Carroll’s Alice (who dons armour – really this is as much about appropriating the Jabberwocky poem as anything).

And Burton doesn’t enliven matters with his first extensive use of green screen. The joins are all too obvious and the planes he works on appear very flat; more often than not we are conscious that the physical actors are not interacting with anything tangible, be that down to eyelines, lighting or unimaginative staging. As mentioned earlier, Burton’s worlds have always been, at very least, built on their (heightened) physicality upwards. Without this crutch he seems all-at-sea. It’s not as if the computer wizardry has come up with anything arresting; the choice of a grimy, decaying landscape might be seen as a bold one for a big family film (it’s certainly a striking contrast to Sam Raimi’s Technicolor yawn of Oz The Great and Powerful) but Burton clearly doesn’t have a driving vision for his film. The designs of familiar characters lack verve, impressively animated but bereft of life.

In that sense they accurately reflect the lack of wit and playfulness inherent in the screenplay. There is no charm here. Depp doesn’t come quite as unstuck as with Willy Wonka, but that’s only because he is less central. His Hatter is even served an undercooked backstory, while his madness allows him to indulge a variety of tics and voices (“Naughty” being his catchphrase of choice). Elsewhere Burton seems to have fixed on a look as uninventive as basing characters on a hall of mirrors; so Crispin Glover’s Knave (why employ Glover and use none of his manic energy?) is all elongated limbs, while Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen has a big fat head.

Bonham Carter’s performance is a shameless riff on Miranda Richardson’s Queen Elizabeth in Black-Adder II, but not nearly as much fun. Anne Hathaway’s White Queen is utterly forgettable, meanwhile. Many of the individuals cast are fine (Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry) but the dialogue and designs let them down – with the exception of Paul Whitehouse’s loopy-looking March Hare. The Jabberwocky is a dull, generic monster; not a patch on Gilliam’s faithful-on-a-budget take in Jabberwocky. Mia Wasikowska makes for a lovely but unpresuming Alice; she doesn’t really get a grip on the forthrightness and obstinacy of the character, but then she has not been given much of a part on paper.

For the most part, while this is an uninspired take on Alice it isn’t actually outright bad. Until, that is, a victorious Hatter does a cringeworthy dance (soon after repeated by Alice) that would have made the 30 year-old Burton (who concluded Beetlejuice with a sublime dance number) wretch violently.

And then there’s the strange coda where Alice proposes going to work for her late father’s friend Lord Ascot, opening up trade routes with China. It feels like a “missing the wood for the trees” choice, partly because Alice is imbued with a modern take on female independence by making her an agent of British colonialism. But also because it suggests that Alice has put away her childish imagination (even given the sight of Absolom, clearly real, on her shoulder, or the scratches on her arm from the Bandersnatch) and stepped forward bravely into the sterile world of soulless capitalism. Where’s the wonder in that?

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