March 27, 2010

Alice in Burtonland

Though I never planned to write film reviews on this blog, I’m making an exception for Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. If you feel that I somehow need to justify this exemption, I can offer you two reasons, or excuses:
  1. The movie is (kind of) based on a literary source.
  2. The movie really, really pissed me off.
Before I address the movie itself let me state in no uncertain terms that I believe Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, and its sequel Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There are not good books. To be sure, both works contain clever wordplay, interesting philosophical and mathematical games, and alluring images. On the other hand, these books also contain tedious scenes, bad puns, obscure and uninteresting references, random silliness, and jokes that fall flat. Most relevant in this case is the fact that as coherent linear narratives they simply do not work.

Does anyone really remember the plot after Alice goes through the rabbit hole, or is it just a series of unrelated images – growing/shrinking, the mad tea party, talking to the caterpillar, “off with their heads,” et cetera? How many “fans” of the work actually remember the Duchess or Bill the lizard, who figure so prominently in the first book, and are missing from most adaptations? How many people realize that Humpty Dumpty, or Tweedledum and Tweedledee, are not denizens of Wonderland, but of the unrelated world through the mirror, or that the Walrus and the Carpenter, as well as the Jabberwock, are characters within poems included in the sequel (which incidentally constitute the best part of that book) that do not interact with the others?

But perhaps none of this matters, because the images are so powerful and memorable. Alice in Wonderland, as it has come to be known, has garnered a cult following, and it’s not difficult to understand why – it has all the elements required of a cult object, as described by Umberto Eco in his essay on Casablanca (which he describes as “a hodgepodge of sensational scenes strung together implausibly,” an assessment equally applicable to the Alice books):
What are the requirements for transforming a book or a movie into a cult object? The work must be loved, obviously, but this is not enough. It must provide a completely furnished world so that its fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize through each other a shared experience. Naturally all these elements (characters and episodes) must have some archetypal appeal.
I don’t think I need to expand on Alice’s archetypal appeal; if there’s one thing that the Alice books achieve best of all it is the creation of memorable characters – The White Rabbit, The Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts have all become cultural touchstones referenced by everything from superhero comics to psychedelic bands and I believe that few people now realize that Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Cheshire Cat, and Humpty Dumpty were all characters, or at least concepts, that existed long before Carroll brought them into his work.
Another aspect of Alice that easily fits Eco’s definitions is the issue of nonlinearity, or un-narrative-ness brought up earlier, since a cult object “should display not one central idea but many. It should not reveal a coherent philosophy of composition. It must live on, and because of, its glorious ricketiness.”

So why does Tim Burton's adaptation fail so thoroughly, as both movie and cult object? I can think of two major reasons:
  1. It fails as a cult object because it puts too much emphasis on plot.
  2. It fails as a movie because it doesn’t have a plot.
Well, though I do enjoy contradicting myself, and though it seems entirely appropriate to do so in a review of something (kind of) related to Lewis Carroll, I guess it would be more accurate to say the movie doesn’t have much of a plot, or doesn’t have a good/interesting/original plot. The basic failure of this movie is at the level of the screenplay – it’s just not interesting enough. The hackneyed plot of a young woman finding the courage to assert herself is pure Disney, and probably dealt with more deeply and skillfully in The Little Mermaid or Mulan (I haven’t seen either, so I’m just guessing here).

It seemed as if the screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, perhaps knowing that she could not be as witty as Carroll, makes no attempts to be clever, and manages to make Carroll’s own witticisms seem trite (I guess she didn’t want to be outshined by her deceased collaborator). Whenever a reference to the original text was made, I did not smile knowingly, but rather winced, since it was so often thrown in out of context, without reason, and often thwarted by the actors’ garbled delivery.
For example, a throwaway line like the Mad Hatter’s riddle “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” is repeated as if it is some sort of zen-buddhist mantra of the “Tree-falling-in-the-forest” variety. Woolverton probably didn’t even think of looking at Martin Gardner’s annotated Alice, which offers a witty answer to the riddle: “Because Poe wrote on both.” Such a response should appeal to someone with Burton’s sensibilities, as would an overall darker tone and content, but these seem out of reach for this Disney-fied version by this Disney-fed writer (whose past writing credits include Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and various episodes of Alvin and the Chipmunks and Ducktales).

Though there’s no shortage of intriguing characters in the original texts, the cast seems oddly sparse and unvaried, and certain characters are transformed for no apparent reason. The somnolent dormouse, for example, is turned into a sort of feminist d’Artagnan wielding a pin, and an unjustifiably large (and schmaltzy) role is given to Bayard the bloodhound, which does not appear in the original texts. On the other hand, the Lion and the Unicorn, the White Knight, and Humpty Dumpty, figure nowhere in the movie. The same goes for the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle, my personal favorites, and the charming Lobster Quadrille they perform for Alice in the book is supplanted by the uninspired and excessively CGI-ed Futterwacken dance performed by The Mad Hatter.
Other characters are taken from the Jabberwocky poem and incorporated into the storyline, with the Jabberwock itself taking on a main role as the antagonist (It should be noted that the creature's name is Jabberwock, and the poem's name is Jabberwocky, but in the film the creature is constantly referred to as the Jabberwocky, which is somewhat akin to an adaptation The Great Gatsby constantly referring to the protagonist as the Great Gatsby, e.g. "They shook hands briefly, and a strained, unfamiliar look of embarrassment came over the Great Gatsby's face.").

Incidentally, the whole idea of taking the poem literally and making characters based on the impossible creatures it describes is so lame it should have been done by the Muppets, not Tim Burton. Oh wait, it was done by the Muppets:

But the massive failures of the screenplay do not mean that Burton himself was faultless in how he chose to present the material. His version of “wonderland,” turned into “underland” in the movie, is supposed to be a sort of post-apocalyptic land, or at the very least some kind of oppressive soviet-style autocracy, but we never get a real sense of fear or terror. Throughout the movie Burton eschews pervasive menace in favor of the easy shudder – an eye gouged out (and later restored), or decapitated heads floating in a moat (that look more like mannequin heads than anything else).

The gravest offense of all, however, isn’t that Burton drained the wonder out of wonderland and failed to replace it with anything else, but that he has utterly eliminated the madness of the original. The characters act, whether wisely or stupidly, in utterly coherent and logical ways, with clear purposes. The Mad Hatter isn’t mad at all, he’s just angry, and understandably so. Characters often talk about being mad or fearing that they’re going mad, but there’s regrettably little enough evidence of that.
The original works were a whimsical celebration of eccentricity and nonconformity, a sneer at Victorian mores, a gentle mockery of polite society, but this movie retains none of that, instead creating a simplistic good versus evil story, with a neatly packaged moral and a dénouement that should have any amateur screenwriter bashing their foreheads into the backrest in front of them, shouting, “show, don’t tell!” at the top of their voices.

There are many other faults in the film I cannot currently be bothered to go into, from the uneven cartoonish acting, through the pop-up book feel of the 3-D effects, and up to un-nuanced CGI-heavy design. As for the dull, unimaginative, and oppressively repetitive musical score by Danny Elfman, all I can say is this: I don’t know the first thing about writing a musical score for a film, but neither does Mr. Elfman.

There were so many ways this could have turned out to be a good movie, or at least an interesting one. I’m tempted to say Terry Gilliam should have directed it, but he has already tried to adapt Carroll’s material with fairly disastrous results (the 1977 movie Jabberwocky, loosely based on the poem). Even Burton himself might have done a better job if he wasn’t working from a Disney script with a PG-rated sensibility; just think what we could have gotten if he was adapting American McGee’s Alice instead.
Maybe it would have been best if Alice had received the Victor Fleming treatment some 70-odd years ago, as The Wizard of Oz did, complete with black-and-white real world characters corresponding to colorful Wonderland characters, over the top 1930’s special effects, and perhaps a cheesy song or two. CGI-generated imagery just doesn’t feel right for the Victorian world of Lewis Carroll, but an ancient and solid Fleming version could have achieved the “glorious ricketiness” of a cult object. For now, I suggest, let’s stick to the books.

1 comment:

  1. I couldn't agree more with said sentiments. An excellent review; much MUCH better than the movie.