Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (which debuted March 5) takes the director's signature darkness as a lens for Lewis Carroll's famously warped children's classic. Carroll's psychadelic motifs have no better complement than 3D technology. The chatty poppy flowers and effervescent Cheshire Cat are enough to justify your $14. But Burton's Alice, with the eponymous maiden played by Mia Wasikoska, is no moribund Victorian fairy tale.
The beginning of the new Wonderland shows Alice as a frustrated, bookish girl on the brink of marriage to a rich Lord meant to keep her from "being a burden" on her recently widowed mother. "If you have an idea," says her fiancé during a waltz, "It's best to keep it to yourself." If you missed this Austenian wrinkle last time your read Carroll, it's because Burton has added a (rather lengthy) frame to the "Alice falls down hole; opium ensues" narrative we are familiar with. It has the advantage of setting an oppressively staid standard for normality; and its cleverness is the contrast between the live-action English gardens and the computer-animated world into which she escapes.
It is when her future mother-in-law (Geraldine James) is interrogating Alice on her cooking plans among the box hedges that she sees the (CG) White Rabbit in a waistcoat darting between the bushes. So she flees the gaze of the Lords and Ladies, dashes across a field and tumbles into the rabbit hole.
In Wonderland we get to Burton’s home turf: the universe of children’s imagination. The recent career retrospective on his work at the Museum of Modern Art in New York showcased the origins of the dark humor undergirding his most famous movies. The show, which runs until April 26, devotes some space to films like The Nightmare Before Christmas and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, but the heart of the exhibition lies in pages torn from reams of sketchbooks, showcasing a psyche forged in the doldrums of suburban California. In these pencil drawings and oil paintings his grim honesty about the world of adults becomes clear. Burton’s visual power lies in his ability to condense the painful normalness of the adult world into caricatures.
Although he got his start drawing signs about city ordinances for Burbank, CA, Burton seems to be generally skeptical of social standards. His sketches condense this suspicion into bodies: love is two sweethearts skewered on cupid’s arrow. In one pair of paintings, grotesque monsters feast at a long table; in the other frame, children play below, between the legs of soberly dressed adults. Alice in Wonderland echoes this view, which finds its motivation in equal parts from childlike wonder and disgust with convention.
Burton characters embody the uglier aspects of human nature in both the sketchbooks and the Wonderland characters. In a scene where the Mad Hatter (Burton’s favorite actor, Johnny Depp) dresses the Red Queen in a number of chapeaux, fawning courtiers praise each and every one: “You’ve never looked more splendid,” one says of a hat whose brim flops over the Queen’s face. Her half-yard nose belies the compliment.
Burton’s most conspicuous addition is a traditional Hollywood plot for what is an essentially plotless novel. His most conspicuous subtraction is any reference to hallucinogens— surprising, considering the source material. The film becomes a crusade in which Alice must regain her “muchness” by saving Wonderland from the Sauron-like Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter). In this version, Alice is anointed “Champion” of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and must slay the Jabberwocky, which—no longer a mere nonsense rhyme—has become Alice’s rival, the tool of the evil Red Queen, and the nemesis of benevolent rule. Her guide is a mumbly Johnny Depp who aces the role of the Mad Hatter, but can’t quite overcome his previous personal bests as Willy Wonka and the immortal Captain Jack Sparrow.
Streamlining the plot is one thing, but Burton goes too far trying to wrap up the new plotlines so neatly. After emerging from the rabbit hole—no spoiler alert necessary—Alice leaves her fiancé on bent knee. But she attracts the attention of his father, Lord Ascot, a shipping magnate who recently bought out her late father’s business. He is intrigued by Alice’s idea to begin trading with—you guessed it!—China. Instead of a daughter-in-law, he gets an imaginative apprentice. This exchange, in which Alice’s whacky imagination frees her from marriage and gets her a job, turns the moral of Alice in Wonderland into: “Think outside the box; you may get an Emerging Markets internship.” The last frame is Alice in a business suit–looking frock on the prow of China-bound ship. Burton’s visual masterpiece suffers from these final two minutes. Nothing would have been lost—but much would have been gained—if Alice in Wonderland had ended in the brilliant world down the rabbit hole, where Burton’s talents show best.
NICK GREENE B'10 and NICK WERLE B'10 haven't lost their muchness.