remember what the dormouse said

Alice LiddellWhy is a raven like a writing desk?”

Lewis Carroll (aka Charles Dodgson), a brilliant logician and mathematician, was a somewhat creepy man with a fondness for children that modern readers find somewhat unsettling.  One little girl in particular was his very favorite, and while whatever sort of relationship he may or may not have had with her will never be known, he made her possibly the most famous little girl in the world.  Her name, of course, was Alice.

Carroll’s two most famous works, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There have been mashed up for Tim Burton’s new movie Alice in Wonderland, a continuation of Alice’s journey through the remarkable world of “Underland” (we are told in the movie that she got it wrong her first time through).

[SPOILERS?  Yes!!]

The movie begins with a young Alice being comforted by her father after she has a nightmare of falling down a long, dark hole into a crazy world where animals and inanimate objects talk.   In the next scene it is thirteen years later and we meet the now adult Alice.  Her father is dead and she and her mother are late for a very important date, specifically Alice’s engagement to a rather cliche example of an upperclass British twit.  Alice, we are quickly made to see, is an independent young lady; she doesn’t wear corsets or stockings, she moons about dreamily, is easily distracted, and occasionally speaks nonsense.  While Alice walks in the garden with her absolutely awful future mother-in-law her attention is diverted from a discussion of  her future husband’s gastrointestinal ills by the sight of an obviously distressed white rabbit in a waistcoat.    Alice gives chase, falls down a hole, and when she lands finds herself in a small room with several locked doors, a small glass table, and a brass key…

The Wonderland that Alice finds herself in has changed and not for the better.  Its blasted wastelands are populated by creatures living in fear of the Red Queen, a macrocephalic despot who thrives on her hatred of her sister, the beautiful and somewhat creepy White Queen.    The Hatter and the March Hare still hold their tea party next to the wreckage of the Hare’s house although both are noticeably farther around the bend than before.  Alice has only fragmentary memories of her first trip and believes she is in a dream; none of the creatures believes she is the “right Alice”, the one who was there before and who is supposed to slay the Jabberwocky, a fearsome minion of the Red Queen.

As Alice travels through the ravaged Wonderland, she comes to realize that what she had always thought was a recurring dream was actually a memory and that Wonderland is real.   She meets the White Queen, rescues the Dormouse and Hatter from the Red Queen, befriends the Bandersnatch, restores the vorpal sword to its rightful owner, and eventually rises to her destiny as the White Queen’s champion in the final battle over the fate of Wonderland.

Burton, who perhaps is a wee bit overindulged these days, has created neither a sequal to nor a remake of previous versions of  Alice.  The Alice books are remarkable in that Carroll managed what few people can: he told the story of dreams in such a way that none of their illogic or magic was lost.  There are no real stories in the Alice books.  They are merely dream sequences in which nonsensical things happen, time flows backwards, scenes change randomly, and every day items and creatures become magical.  Burton has taken elements of both Alice books and made a linear story line.  This has the unfortunate effect of losing the dreamlike quality of the originals but probably does quite a bit to improve pacing.  He also gives all the characters names and dispenses with the unfortunate fact that the slayer of the Jabberwocky is male by having the Hatter occasionally refer to Alice as “he”.

Did I like the film?  Yeah, I did, for the most part.  I wasn’t encouraged by the trailers I’ve seen and I wasn’t expecting much but I found the movie surprisingly engaging.  Although the plot is a fairly pedestrian reworking of the usual “hero uses a magic sword to kill a big dragon” and “coming of age” themes it moves along fairly quickly.  This is a Burton film, so there are the usual unsettling little details.  My favorite is when Alice has to cross the Red Queen’s moat on the rotting heads of the people the Queen has had executed.  Shortly thereafter we are informed that one of her victims was the King of Hearts who, as we recall from the books, was a doddering old sweetheart who loved tarts and followed behind his wife pardoning everyone she had condemned.  His head, still crowned, floats in the moat.

Most of the digital effects work well.  The Tweedle twins are actually kind of unsettling in their eerie similarity, the March Hare is magnificent, and the Jabberwocky is a quite creditable version of the Tenniel drawing.  Some effects work less well.  The Bandersnatch is disappointing, the talking flowers were a mistake, and I do not understand why, in a movie in which half the characters are real, they could not just use real dogs (pet peeve, sorry; the digital ones always look so fake).   I saw no real point to the 3D.  It’s not incredibly well-done and adds very little to the visual effects.

The actors are also somewhat of a mixed bag.  The director clearly wanted Gwyneth Paltrow to play Alice but she’s too old (and busy with Ironman) so he found someone who looks exactly like her.  Mia Wasikowska drifts through the movie with the same pale insubstantialness that Paltrow often brings to her roles.   Helena Bonham-Carter is quite good as the Red Queen (actually an amalgamation of the Queen of Hearts and the Red Queen from the books).   Although the older sister, she is plagued with insecurities and has become a monster in her attempts to assert her rightful place on the throne.  We are almost allowed to feel sorry for her before she decides that, yes, after all it is better to be feared than to be loved.  Anne Hathaway plays the White Queen as something a little more disturbing than the good princess usually is.   Alan Rickman provides a certain gravitas to the voice of the Caterpillar and Christopher Lee voices the Jabberwocky.

This brings us to Johnny Depp as the Hatter.  Like Burton, Depp is occasionally overindulged in his roles (the second and third incarnations of Captain Jack Sparrow for example), and the movie trailers for Alice implied this would be the case here as well.    Despite the silly eyes and the wildly changing hair and the random forays into a thick Scottish accent he is quite convincing as a man driven mad both by his profession (hatters used mercury) and by the horrors he has witnessed.  He is clinging to sanity by  his fingernails and he holds on because of the promise of a little girl he once knew.  Depp makes this effort visible; the viewer sees him descend a bit further into madness with each scene and can also see the effort with which he wrenches himself back to some semblance of functionality.  He is the de facto leader of the resistance to the Red Queen and delivers himself into her power in order to save Alice.  I am still trying to decide if the similarity of his  relationship with Alice to that between the Scarecrow and Dorothy (another little girl who dreamed of magical places) was deliberate or not.   Either way, it adds a bit of pathos and depth to what is essentially the story of a very silly little girl who dreamed of wonderful land where she was the only one with any sense.

Oh, and we never do find out how a raven is like a writing desk.  Maybe there will be a sequel.

Score:  meh, but the good kind.

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~ by gun street girl on March 12, 2010.

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