It’s gotten so that one must naturally respond to word that another classic work of literature is being brought to the screen with a shudder. The custom has become to treat these texts with a looseness that borders on the criminal and a misguided attempt to turn them into the sort of stuff modern adolescents expect in their movies, something that requires featuring a star who will give the material a quirky, ironic twist that appeals to today’s sensibilities. So we’ve recently been treated, if that’s the word, to Robert Zemeckis’ motion-capture version of “A Christmas Carol,” which featured Jim Carrey in a plot that wound up with a frantic carriage chase through London, and Guy Ritchie’s “Sherlock Holmes,” which turned Conan Doyle’s detective into a modern action hero played with his usual winking approach by Robert Downey, Jr., and situated him in a plot straight out of Indiana Jones folderol.
Now Tim Burton brings us a new version of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” and one can only remark: “Et tu, Burton?”
This big-budget, 3-D Disney extravaganza, filled with CGI mixed with live action footage, might retain the title of Carroll’s work (or works: it also includes references to “Through the Looking Glass”) and many of the most famous characters, but it’s no adaptation of the originals. Instead Linda Woolverton’s script stitches together bits and pieces of Carroll’s wittily deadpan books into a grimly ordinary story of a young girl’s liberation from Victorian convention through an act of imagination that involves her becoming a sword-wielding dragon-fighter. Visually splendiferous but wrongheaded, the movie is far more Burton than Carroll—and not very good Burton at that—and far less than enchanting. “Alice in Wonderland” is so concerned with wowing us that it misses what made its source special.
In this telling, the child Alice is shown only in a limp prologue in which her father soothes her after she has her recurrent dream about Wonderland. The narrative then jumps ahead thirteen years, when an older Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is being taken to a garden party where she’s to be proposed to by a snooty nobleman, Hamish (Leo Bill). But as the aristocrat’s even snootier mother (Geraldine James) is taking her for a walk around the garden, the White Rabbit (voiced without distinction by Michael Sheen) shows up and encourages her to follow him down the rabbit hole again.
When she gets there, she finds a passel of characters she’d met on her previous journey, the most notable being the Hatter (Johnny Depp, in another trippy “Willy Wonka”-style performance) and the wicked Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) who rules with the connivance of the Knave of Hearts, Stayne (Crispin Glover), who for some reason doesn’t have the card-like form of other knights and knaves. And the older Alice has been brought back to Wonderland (or Underland, as the locals call it) for a purpose: she’s the heroine destined on “that frabjous day” to wield a fabulous sword to kill the Red Queen’s champion, the dragon-like Jabberwocky, and restore rule to the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). She goes through a series of encounters (including a couple with the monster Bandersnatch) and adventures that eventually wind up in a big battle sequence in which she battles the Jabberwocky, while her allies, including the Hatter (something more appropriate for Jack Sparrow than Carroll’s creation), engage in sword fights with the rest of the Red Queen’s forces—obviously with the intent of selling young members of the audience with a burning desire to play the inevitable video game based on it.
There are moments in Burton’s film that suggest what might have been. The CGI figures of the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat, voiced superbly by Alan Rickman and Stephen Fry, have a real touch of magic. And the backgrounds are impressive in 3-D, even if the images are sometimes a bit blurred and some of the Alice-Jabberwocky fight scene is actually pretty poor from the technical standpoint.
But for the most part the picture comes across as an increasingly frenzied and generic action-adventure—one that will probably perplex adults (and repel those who love the books) while terrifying smaller children (what will they make, for example, of the moment when the Bandersnatch’s eye is literally plucked for its socket?). Yet it doesn’t go far enough in the “refashioning” process to satisfy old kids, either. One couldn’t expect absolute fidelity to Carroll’s work, of course—the careful card and chess patterns of the books could hardly be reproduced on screen, and much of their verbal riffing has to be jettisoned; but we might have expected of Burton a more honest and clever treatment than this messy assemblage of flotsam and jetsam cobbled together from the wreckage of the originals.. It’s certainly prettier and truer to Carroll than the SyFy Channel’s modernized “Alice” miniseries; but not by much. And the finale—in which Alice, made fully independent by her experience, refuses her snobbish suitor and takes off on real-life adventures, seems like nothing more than a nutty version of “You go, girl!” (That sequence, and the opening garden party, come off as nearly undirected—the acting throughout them is terrible.)
Amid the welter of effects and visual flights of imagination, the cast is largely adrift. Wasikowska keeps her composure and looks lovely, which is about all that’s asked of her, while Depp relies on his customary repertoire of twee gestures and Glover on his gift for glower. Bonham Carter delivers the Red Queen’s perpetual “Off with their heads” business with aplomb, but otherwise is just conventionally haughty, while Hathaway gives her White counterpoint a bit of the Carroll’s goofy forgetfulness, but not enough.
Carroll’s classic has been filmed plenty of times, but none of the movies—not the MGM 1933 all-star extravaganza or Disney’s 1951 cartoon—the two best-known attempts—or a 1972 British misfire, or Irwin Allen’s misguided 1985 television musicalization, or any of the others have really captured the unique tone of the original, or its dryly gossamer quality. One can add Burton’s version to this long string of disappointments. This “Wonderland” encourages a slight revision of another movie title: “’Alice’ Doesn’t Live Here Anymore.”