Examining Hollywood Remakes: Alice in Wonderland

When Lewis Carroll wrote Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, he created the best-ever example of the ‘Literary Nonsense’ genre. It’s become an enduring classic for 150 years. It’s been adapted many times. The most famous version is the 1951 animated classic Alice in Wonderland by Disney Studios. It’s one of Disney’s most visually interesting films, because the storyline is so artfully illogical and filled with characters who were meant to be animated. It utilizes some great voice actors, perfectly suited for their roles.

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It’s not necessary to explain such a familiar story. We all know the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Queen of Hearts, Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit and all the rest. Wonderland and its characters are so visually weird, it’s no wonder that Tim Burton—a guy who loves surreal sets and strange visuals—would be attracted to this material.

There’s no need to go into too much detail of the plot of the original animated film-which is more closely adapted from the book than the Burton film—because everyone knows the story. Basically, a young girl falls down a rabbit hole and finds herself in the bizarre realm called Wonderland, where she has many random, unrelated and surreal experiences with the extremely strange, anthropomorphic inhabitants of the wacky place. She finds out that their logic is very different from ours and she must learn to adapt to the madcap illogic of Wonderland. She often finds herself frustrated but also does her best to go along with their silly nonsense, however odd their humor is. Their often incoherent babbling and pointless dialogue makes it hard for her to know when she’s in actual danger or when these weirdos are just being harmless goofballs. In the climax, when she meets the psycho Queen of Hearts who gets her thrills from having people beheaded, Alice has to put together everything she’s learned and abandon her natural logic to find the right illogical things to say in order to keep her head on her shoulders.

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All this insanity seems perfect for Tim Burton, who has gained the reputation of being one of the most imaginative filmmakers in the industry. When he’s on his game, he produces works of genius (Ed Wood; Edward Scissorhands; Big Fish; Beetlejuice; A Nightmare Before Christmas) but when he is uninspired, he can concoct some real lemons (Mars Attacks, Planet of the Apes, Charlie & the Chocolate Factory, Dark Shadows). There are many peaks-and-valleys in Burton’s oeuvre and while you probably can’t say that Alice in Wonderland is a valley (because it was profitable) it is downward slope.

It doesn’t seem possible that combining the timeless Lewis Carroll classic with one of the most innovative filmmakers in the business, backed by Disney Studios, could lead to something so sadly uninspired as this mediocre effort. Unfortunately, Tim Burton’s 2010 live-action Alice in Wonderland is a disconnected muddle of a movie.

The film is supposed to be a sequel to Lewis Carroll’s legendary tale, although why they didn’t use the actual sequel “Alice through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll, is beyond me. (Alice Through the Looking Glass is coming out this year, though.) Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now 19 and has forgotten her original trip to Wonderland, except in dreams. On the day of her engagement party to her incredibly oafish fiancée, Alice sees the white rabbit with the fob watch (Michael Sheen) once again and impulsively follows him down the rabbit hole once more. She returns to Wonderland—now called Underland for some reason—and has to go through every obstacle as if for the first time, because she still doesn’t recall the first trip. Throughout the bulk of the movie, Alice repeatedly insists she is in a dream.

While Alice has been gone, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter)—A  character from “Alice Through the Looking Glass”–has exiled her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to a rather comfortable looking castle on the outskirts of Underland and is running the show solo, using her fearsome Jabberwocky monster, her evil henchman Stayne (Crispin Glover) and the same ‘off-with-his-head’ philosophy that the Queen of Hearts mastered. (The films seems to confuse the two characters.) The kindly White Queen and the inhabitants of Underland have gotten hold of one of those plot-convenient scrolls that tells the future. (Who writes these scrolls anyway?) The scroll says that Alice will return and slay the Jabberwocky, so the White Rabbit has been sent to lure our fair-haired heroine back. However, her lack of memory makes everyone doubt whether or not they’ve brought the right Alice back.

Alice resumes her travels in Wonderland—uh, Underland—and meets the usual suspects again. Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum (Matt Lucas); Absalom the blue caterpillar (Alan Rickman); the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry); the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor); the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp).

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While Depp was once one of the most versatile actors in the world today, in recent years he’s stalled in his ‘insane guy under heavy make-up’ character. His interpretation of the Mad Hatter is a bit too versatile. He doesn’t seem to know what to do with the character so he does…everything! Since the Hatter is supposed to be mad, Depp clearly feels no constraints about his ‘too-much-is-not-enough’ portrayal and Burton gives him free reign here. Depp alternates from manic insanity to cunning charm to sad victim and everything in between. Even his voice constantly alters, from a Scots brogue to a fey lisp, among others. His madness is supposed to explain all this but in reality, it’s just Depp playing crazy again.

One of the biggest flaws with the film is the epic ending. Why couldn’t Burton or writer Linda Woolverton think of a better conclusion than a big action sequence? The final moments are reminiscent of the conclusion to Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers or Return of the King or The Chronicles of Narnia, all of which ended with armies battling. Why would the peace-loving White Queen (who chides one of her subjects for speaking too harshly to a tree) choose to solve Underland’s woes by sending her army into a bloody battle? Why does a pacifist even have an army? And why does Alice have to turn into Xena Warrior Princess to save Underland? She only had to use her brain in her previous visit. These and many other questions remain unanswered. For instance, how is it that the Red Queen identifies Alice from a drawing of her hair (“I’d recognize those golden locks anywhere”) but doesn’t recognize Alice when they are face-to-face? Don’t try to make sense out of it.

Another problem with the Burton version is that it feels the need to make a linear—and rather clichéd—plot out of a book derived from literary nonsense. Wonderland—uh, Underland—is meant to be random and nonsensical. It’s hard to imagine the eccentric oddities and freaks of the book with their short-attention spans actually commit to long-term plans and strategies to overthrow an unpopular queen. The movie would have been better if the scenes were more episodic. 

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On the plus side, the Burton movie is as visually brilliant as anything he’s ever done. The sets, effects and CGI character designs are nothing short of brilliant. If you are deaf and not interested in the storyline, you’ll love his film. The Motion Capture effects which give the CGI characters the expressions of the actors are top notch, and Carter steals the show with her amusingly evil interpretation of the Red Queen, but overall, this movie has none of the magic that a movie about Wonderland should have. If you take away the incredible visuals, there is nothing left here but a tedious, uninteresting rehash of a legendary tale. Burton can do so much better than this. If you’re looking for something with deeper meaning than just the visuals, then you should check out one of Burton’s better features.

The 1951 animated version is clearly the better of the two Disney versions of this story. The animated one admittedly has it faults. They do cut out a lot of material from the book to keep down the running time (it’s meant to be a kid’s flick) and the movie is really too short to accommodate Lewis Carroll’s work. However, they still manage to keep the spirt of the book and the essence of most of the characters. Actually, when the animated film first came out, it got mediocre reviews and did only modestly at the box office. Walt Disney himself was disappointed that it was not better received. Ironically for a Disney film, it was redeemed by the 1960s drug culture. The film was re-released in the 60s when the genre of psychedelic, dreamlike ‘Head Films’ like Yellow Submarine became popular. The visual franticness and strangeness of the film brought it a whole new audience. It’s since become considered a classic. (It’s at 79% at Rotten Tomatoes.)

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Burton’s version, on the other hand, did better financially, making a good profit at the box office but it got a worse beating from the critics, averaging only 52% on Rotten Tomatoes and 53% on Metacritic. Despite being a great-looking film, it’s a massive disappointment. Hopefully the sequel will be better.

So that’s all for this week’s look at cinematic remakes. We’ll be back next week to dissect another remade movie. In the meantime, you can look up our previous articles Examining Hollywood Remakes.