Monday, March 22, 2010

Crime against art

I was curious to see "Alice in Wonderland". Tim Burton's works generally have a degree of quality, and Johnny Depp is always watchable. I'd heard that it was a quite different story from the original, featuring a 19-year-old Alice revisiting a land populated by critters from both books; but, I reasoned, how can you go far wrong filming the Mad Hatter's Tea Party?

In a surprising number of different ways, it turns out.

First, you can set the whole thing in a kind of fantasy version of a post-apocalyptic wasteland, where everything is broken and dusty and looks vaguely poisonous. You can explain this by introducing a conventional good-versus-evil story in which the Red Queen (modelled superficially on the Queen of Hearts, but really owing more to the Wicked Stepmother) and the White Queen (modelled mostly on Generic Disney Queen Number 3, the Exiled Wise Benefactor, and resembling nothing in either of the books even physically) are duking it out for control of "Underland".

Add in an unexplained and pointless prophecy about Alice slaying the Jabberwocky (the noun is "Jabberwock", by the way, as anyone who's read the freakin' poem could have told you). Scene set for a final battle, because what's a fantasy movie without a climactic battle? Add in romantic tension between Alice and the Mad Hatter. Convert Tweedledum and Tweedledee into an underplayed comic sidekick with almost no audible lines - then they can fight in the final battle with their own unique martial art which involves one riding the other piggyback (whaddya mean, "stupid"? - it worked in Bill & Ted's Bogus Journey). Oh, and make sure there's a talking dog, because without a talking dog how would we know it's Disney?

Next, take out all the bits that don't fit into this infantile new narrative. All those Victorian nursery rhymes, they've got to go. All that clever mathematical and satirical stuff, we don't want anything in the script that you need to be over 12 to understand. Take out the Gryphon, the Mock Turtle, the White Knight, the Dodo and the caucus-race, Humpty Dumpty, the Sheep. Take out the Pool of Tears, Giant Alice in the house - in fact, everything relating to Alice's difficulty in controlling her own size is reduced to some feebly predictable dilemmas about her clothing (and despite having reworked the rules of size changing, the writers haven't bothered to make them coherent). Take out the jokes, and don't replace them with anything; after all, there's no point trying to be funny without Jim Carrey, is there?

Finally, turn the caterpillar into some kind of oracle (and, of course, the obligatory "transformation" metaphor), turn the Cheshire Cat into a deus ex machina, forget about the trial and the chess game. Oh, and tell Johnny Depp he's still playing Willy Wonka.

Put it all together, and we have what might well stand as the worst crime against literature ever perpetrated. It's hard to be sure, but it's definitely a contender.

What's even more pointless is the framing narrative, in which Alice runs off and falls down the world's biggest rabbit-hole...

The child Alice is seen talking to her father, Charles. Their surname, bafflingly, is neither Dodgson nor Liddell, but Kingsley (or, IMDB insists, "Kingsleigh"). They live in London, not Oxford, because obviously that's the only place in England that a young American audience might have heard of (and ratings forefend that we should be thought to be trying to Educate...).

Thirteen years later Charles is dead, and Alice is being proposed to by a young aristocrat - which is odd, since it's clear neither one of them can stand the other. She feels the pressure of expectation upon her, everyone from Jemma Powell to Frances de la Tour is confidently willing her to say yes, so what could be more natural than that she runs off after a rabbit in a waistcoat?

Later in the film, she's feeling exactly the same communal pressure of expectation to take up the vorpal sword and slay the monster. That time, to nobody's surprise, she caves in. This is a blessing, because I have to admit the warrior Alice looks very fetching in her silver armour. Sad to say she doesn't wear it long, before being transported "home" to reject her pompous, patient swain in the gratingly anachronistic language of post-feminist empowerment.

Lewis Carroll's Alice, lest we forget, is no diffident, oppressed Victorian flower:
'Stuff and nonsense!' said Alice loudly. 'The idea of having the sentence first!'
'Hold your tongue!' said the Queen, turning purple.
'I won't!' said Alice.
'Off with her head!' the Queen shouted at the top of her voice. Nobody moved.
'Who cares for you?' said Alice, (she had grown to her full size by this time.) 'You're nothing but a pack of cards!'
Tim Burton's Alice says none of this. She's an entirely conventional Disney heroine, all trace of individuality or independence wrung out of her not by Victorian social convention, but by the far more deadening hand of a Hollywood focus group.

With due thought and consideration, I give this film an F. F for Failure. As a visiting friend put it: "Never in the field of human cinema has so much talent been so squandered by so many for so little."


S said...

Yes, I thought that would be the outcome of a Disney/Burton collaboration.

This is an wonderfully articulate accurate intelligent movie critique.

Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" portrayed by Burton: full of sound and fury, signifying nothing...but it is pretty.


vet said...

Apparently, Tim Burton didn't like the books as a kid. (I'm certain he didn't understand them.)

I'd like to propose a rule: filmmakers should only be allowed to film stories that they genuinely like. Maybe there is a competent director out there somewhere who actually appreciates the books, and could do them some sort of justice. Surely there are enough stories to go round. (I enjoyed Burton & Depp's Sweeney Todd.) But don't set them to ruin stories they don't even 'get'.

Cian said...

Now I'm feeling rather lucky at never having read the book before (Yes I know!). Knowing that it was a Disney adaptation/production and it was marketed to death, even with Tim Burton at the helm, I had rather low expectations for the film.

So upon watching it a couple of weeks ago, I actually rather enjoyed it. Yes it did have all the usual Disney themes (Good overcoming Evil etc.), the humourless humour and an over simplistic script.

For me Helena's delivery of "Off with their Heads" was just sublime. I really enjoyed the 3D element and for some scenes I really felt that I was there in person.

But now after reading your critique I really want to read the book. I think I might have been robbed.

Your new rule is a great proposition and I second it.

Deadlyjelly said...

Yeah, after seeing the trailer and Johnny Depp still channelling Willy Wonka - the only part in which I've loathed him; he looked like his motivation for every scene was a palsied sphincter - I decided to pass on 'Alice in Wonderland'.

After reading your review, I know that's a good choice. Thanks for saving me an hours' drive to the cinema. I'm sure it would have ruined my week.

But your terrific review also inspires me to look up the books by Lewis Carroll.


vet said...

Cian: I love the books (as you might have gathered from the review). But I've come to realise, particularly in looking at other reviews of this film, that an awful lot of people simply didn't understand them.

You need to get into a particular kind of mindset. It's partly Victorian - trusting, courteous, progressive, and above all safe - but more importantly, it's also academic. Think of yourself as a 19th-century Oxford undergraduate, with all the time in the world to sit about on the grass talking about paradoxes and puzzles in a world of reassuring peace and stability.

It's also a very unconventional book, for a fantasy: it doesn't have any villains (it has some moderately brutal figures - the Duchess and the Queen of Hearts - but even they are ultimately harmless), and the closest there is to a notion of "conflict" is the very genteel setting of a chess game (in Through the Looking Glass), in which the pieces treat one another with courtesy and sportsmanship.

Jelly: I'm happy to have convinced you. It makes me feel better about having given my own money to these swine, to know that I've helped prevent them getting yours. And I agree wholeheartedly with your critique of Depp as Willy Wonka, and yes, the same does apply in this movie. I saw one critic put it: "Maybe it's time for Burton and Depp to think about seeing other people."

Ragnhild said...

With the wisdom gained by someone born before worldwar II, I have made it a rule never, never to watch the film of a much loved book or watch a remake of a film that was very good in its first incarnation.

Reading a book is a bit like listening to a play on the radio. The pictures you create in your head are, as a rule, much better than any thrust on you.

You can see the movie first and then read the book.