Burton’s Twist on Wonderland

The Mad Hatter, a character in Lewis Carroll’s 19th  century master piece “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and its mid-20th century Walt Disney adaptation is famous for his riddle: “why is a raven like a writing desk?” And, as expected, the riddle completely flummoxes Alice.  She can’t think of an answer to save her life.  Think of Mr. Tim Burton’s 21st century iteration of the classic tale in that same fashion: it’s a wondrous and vibrant adventure, and I left the theater stimulated, but, like Alice, I was baffled: I couldn’t tell you why I liked the movie for the life of me.

I was sitting in a preposterously overstuffed screener for the film with an equally preposterous pair of 3-D glasses perched high on my nose and all I could do was gaze into Mr. Johnny Depp’s emerald eyes.  It was then when a question popped up in my head: what is the difference between a visionary and Tim Burton? Unlike Alice, the answer came to me—and it was very simple: a visionary usually changes visions.

Mr. Burton, on the other hand, seems to have finessed a gorgeous aesthetic and stuck with it for most of his career.  Now my stance will raise two counter criticisms: the “how dare you insult Mr. Burton” crowd, and the “if it ain’t broke…” comparison.  Mr. Burton has developed a vibrant art form and has made important contributions to modern cinema.  If his aesthetic works, why change it?

Both counter criticisms are correct.  Let me explain: if there’s a filmmaker alive in 2010 that can pull off a feat like an updated “Alice in Wonderland,” Tim Burton is your man.  It appears as if his career trajectory, his artistic path, has been leading up to this $200 million dollar spectacle ever since his 1988 breakout “Beetlejuice.”  He has consistently delivered to his employers at the studio (His last major outing, “Sweeney Todd” garnered $150 million in the worldwide box office on a $50 million budget) and to his audiences, often producing movies with his famed artistic partner and star, Johnny Depp.

But Mr. Burton seems to have missed the point of what constituted “Alice’s Wonderland.”  Mr. Caroll’s work and the original movie adaptation are famously nonsensical.  The 2010 version is a structurally sound, wondrous and vibrant rekindling of the original—but therein lays the rub: it follows some sort of logical arc, making it the Burtonian antithesis of the mind-boggling trip that was the original.  An audience member will get a sense of this as soon as the film’s driving force changes from the simple wonderment of Alice’s adventure to fulfilling a prophecy to kill a gigantic dragon called a “Jabberwocky.” (As told in Caroll’s 1872 sequel to “Alice in Wonderland” titled “Through the Looking Glass”)

“Alice in Wonderland” is a true wonderland—but in a 21st century technical sense.  3-D, in conjunction with Mr. Burton’s astute direction absolutely enhances “Alice in Wonderland,” but at the expense of Alice’s original story.  The sense of wonderment doesn’t necessarily stem from the script or the multi-dimensional characters (hint: the only additional character dimension an audience ever sees will be due to the hunk of plastic sitting on their face), but rather, from the picture’s technological gravitas.

Aside from the picture’s story inconsistencies, the supporting cast does reasonably well considering the script they’re working with.  Helena Bonham Carter’s turn as the Red Queen is hilariously executed—and it takes a kind of overacting one that has come to be expected of Ms. Carter (Recall her marvelously malicious character Bellatrix Lestrange of the “Harry Potter” fame).  Alan Rickman as the Blue Caterpillar and Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat are phenomenally done as well.  Which leaves us with Mr. Johnny Depp as Mad Hatter and Mia Wasikowska as Alice.  Mr. Depp never seems to step out of his Captain Jack Sparrow boots of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” fame, but that is more of a personal grudge of mine rather than an accurate critique of his acting.  His gap-toothed take as the Mad Hatter is perfectly adequate, and this role just cements his creative partnership with Mr. Burton.  As for big-budget newcomer Ms. Wasikowska, I wasn’t enthralled with her performance, but that might have to do with Mr. Burton’s heavy handedness with the story arc and the fact that the only Alice in any sort of Wonderland I have known to date has been pre-pubescent.

To give all involved credit, the production values are phenomenally executed, the acting is above average and the product shimmers, maybe for the wrong reasons, but it will fill Disney’s coffers.  And as for the Mad Hatter’s riddle? “I haven’t the slightest idea,” Mr. Depp giggles.  Me neither, Mr. Depp.  Me neither.

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