THIS week, Rich takes an extended look at one of the most successful and most derided adaptations of a beloved children’s novel: Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.
Back in the late-noughties, we received word that Disney would be producing a new version of Alice in Wonderland, a property they had previously adapted 60 years earlier. Disney’s classic animated adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice and some (but not all) of her adventures weren’t too well received at the time, even by Uncle Walt himself. Subsequently it’s been validated a hundredfold and contains undoubtedly the most iconic imagery associated with Carroll’s characters outside of the original book illustrations.
The voices they chose for characters such as the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, the Queen of Hearts and Alice herself are the versions I hear in my head when I read Carroll’s bonkers work. It wasn’t the perfect Carroll adaptation, but it was certainly along the right lines and was made with respect and innovation. As one of Disney’s first feature-length projects after the wartime slump, it has some of their most ambitious and hypnotic animation – all drawn and painted by hand.
How do you even attempt to match that legacy? Well, hiring Tim Burton certainly sounds like a good move.
I have a complicated relationship with Tim Burton. Of course I love his early work, including Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas and Batman. They’re funny, they’re dark, they’re atmospheric, they have amazing scores… they’re untouchable, warts-and-all classics. Burton even directed my all-time favourite film Ed Wood with his soulmate Johnny Depp in the lead role. If Tim Burton had died in 1995, he would have left a short but incredible legacy behind and nobody would have a bad word to say about the guy.
Sadly, Burton’s later work has become so painfully formulaic that he doesn’t seem to have any new tricks left, and he’s a victim of the high expectations placed on him. His stage-to-screen musical Sweeney Todd isn’t necessarily a bad movie, but casting his friends and girlfriend instead of people who can sing was a poor choice. His attempt at reviving Planet of the Apes is an unnecessary standalone mess sandwiched between two semi-reputable franchises.
His Charlie and the Chocolate Factory was plagued by Johnny Depp’s most baffling acting choices in a career full of them, and I don’t even know what Dark Shadows was supposed to be going for. Every now and then he dips his toes back into what worked before and pulls out a Frankenweenie or a Big Eyes, and they were met with quiet approval by most, but I enjoyed the hell out of them. He’s got good work left in him; he just doesn’t appear to have anything new or surprising.
Burton seemed like the perfect choice to bring Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to a high-budget cinema experience. After all, he’s the person most known for making kooky and weird films for the mainstream, just about crazy enough to stand out but not too crazy to alienate anyone. He’s one of the few directors with a unique style across his oeuvre which even casual viewers can recognise. The book is already full of brilliant moments, and everybody would have been fairly happy with a straight-up adaptation in the era where CGI effects can truly make the dream world come alive.
Burton brought a number of his go-to actors into the film; Johnny Depp is of course there, playing the Mad Hatter and dominating all the advertising (even though the Hatter is by no means a lead character in ANY other adaptation, but I suppose even Burton wasn’t crazy enough to cast Depp as Alice), Helena Bonham Carter plays a hybrid of the Red Queen and the Queen of Hearts, with a massive CGI head, Alan Rickman voices the Caterpillar, Christopher Lee voices the Jabberwocky and Timothy Spall voices the not-in-the-book bloodhound Bayard. All of these people are incredibly talented, and dearly missed in the case of the late Rickman and Lee, but none of them are on top form or even called to be.
The supporting cast is filled with British “national treasure” actors, many of whom recorded all of their dialogue in a single day, such as Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, Barbara Windsor as the Dormouse, Imelda Staunton as the flowers, Paul Whitehouse as the March Hare and Matt Lucas as both Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
Actors who didn’t get to hide in a recording studio and had to film all of their scenes in a sea of greenscreen include Crispin Glover as the Knave of Hearts and Anne Hathaway (who I will never understand the widespread dislike for) as the White Queen. This is one of the best casts ever assembled for a film, and the sad truth is that most of these actors are completely wasted.
It’s all well and good having a star play a glorified cameo – cameos by character actors are what most Alice in Wonderland adaptations inevitably fill their casts with – but it’s pretty infuriating to hear the soothing and mischievous voice of Stephen Fry coming from an outstandingly animated Cheshire Cat, only for him to say barely any of the great lines Carroll wrote for him.
It seems strange that a film where the Cheshire Cat looks and sounds so damn perfect also completely botches his role in the story. The Cat exists outside of any kind of space and time, and his abilities are apparently infinite but are entirely dependent on his whims. Drawing a character like this into a tired prophecy story is insane when he can solve absolutely any problem if he cares to do so.
Also, the Mad Hatter does a break-dance called a “futterwacken”. It’s the one part of this film everyone remembers so I can’t not mention it, but I’m at a loss as to how to describe it in a text-only review. All I remember is that I found it very hard not to shout profanities at the screen when I first saw the film.
Anyway, about that prophecy nonsense…
Prophecy quests are a common subgenre of fantasy, based around the premise that whatever the protagonist is going to do was foretold and is destined to happen. Prophecies are a bloody mess for writers, and even when they are included in modern fantasy there’s often some exploration of the idea that prophecies are bollocks.
Take Harry Potter for example; JK Rowling included two confirmed prophecies and a handful of mini-prophecies but put both in the mouth of the possibly fraudulent and certainly incompetent divination teacher Professor Trelawney, and has clarified both in and out of the books that the prophecy that “neither can live while the other survives” is fulfilled more by Voldemort’s foolish attempts to prevent it from coming true as Harry’s attempts to fulfil it, and the prophecy overlaps with Neville’s backstory enough for it to debatably be about either or neither of the two July-born wizard boys.
Prophecies rely on internal logic and continuity to work, especially because they essentially give away the ending. But Alice’s adventures in the books and most other adaptations are episodic, almost sketch-like and canonically stated to be a very curious dream. The only through-lines are to find the White Rabbit, decipher a few nonsense words and get home (which essentially means waking up).
In this version, Alice is a teenager returning to “Underland” years later, learning that it wasn’t a dream, and that she is prophesied to slay the Jabberwocky with a vorpal sword on the frabjous day in order to dethrone the Queen of Hearts. All of those nonsense terms come from the titular poem “The Jabberwocky” which features throughout the second book Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There.
In neither book is the Jabberwocky a character Alice actually encounters, and most adaptations don’t shoehorn an actual, fire-breathing, Christopher Lee-voiced dragon into the story for Alice to violently behead like you’d see in a conventional prophecy quest like The Lord of the Rings or, another Disney property, The Chronicles of Narnia, the success of which probably influenced the screenplay more than anything Carroll ever wrote.
Alice in Wonderland was indeed a huge hit, and was briefly the fifth highest-grossing film of all time. Of course, this was before Marvel really hit their stride, Harry Potter had its big finale, China fell in love with Transformers, James Bond became profitable again and Frozen took over the god-damn world. If anything, a billion dollars gross seems like the target for a wide general audience release, not the exception. Even in its own year, Alice was outsold by Toy Story 3, and a billion dollars just doesn’t seem like as big of a milestone now that Star Wars: The Force Awakens has crossed the two-billion mark in its initial run. (Without needing gimmicky extended re-releases to do it – suck it, Avatar!)
Six years ago, Alice in Wonderland was able to cash in on its 3D, its all-star cast and its famous source material, but all of those assets already seem so mundane and the sequel has been far less profitable so far. Disney making live-action films of stories they’ve already done in animated form is a recurring trend right now, and even though they’re usually met with trepidation the films end up inoffensive and visually pleasant enough to get away with flogging dead horses. The Jungle Book and Cinderella were financially successful and critically well-received, and interest is growing in the initially dreaded Beauty and the Beast remake. Alice in Wonderland was, it turns out, the experiment which convinced them to do this again and again until we stop buying tickets.
As is often the problem with adapting distinctive children’s works to a feature film for general audiences (see also: Dr. Seuss), Alice in Wonderland suffers from attempting to expand on the unmistakable and inimitable source material without adding anything new or interesting to it. Everything non-Carroll in this film feels like a rip-off of a better film, everything Carroll feels like it’s crossing off a checklist and none of Burton’s expensive effort suggests a true passion project. Even composer Danny Elfman, who scores nearly all of Burton’s films, is clearly phoning it in.
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton has several Disney hits to her name, including Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King (both the films and the stage adaptations), but those masterpieces were developed over several years by a committee of talented producers, directors, designers, story developers, composers, lyricists, animators and actors so we can’t really credit the screenwriter for their success. Woolverton would later write Maleficent and Alice Through the Looking Glass, both obviously studio-mandated films, and nothing has been produced so far to suggest she’s a groundbreaking auteur. Burton truly can be an auteur though, and it’s disappointing to see his originality watered down so much over the years.
Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland still sounds like a fine idea for a film, but this blatantly computer-generated, tone-deaf, overplotted and underwritten mess doesn’t live up to what Burton could have done with less studio notes, more creative freedom and writers with more confidence in Carroll’s writing. Disney’s previous Alice in Wonderland already exists, it’s not gone anywhere, it will likely outlive this version and perhaps if it were more appreciated in its time Disney would have produced a follow-up film based on the second book. Unfortunately, while that never came to pass, the Burton film made over a billion dollars and DID get a sequel.
But that’s a review for another time…