Criticizing the Critics, & futterwacking around the Alice Movie Paradox

[Warning! Spoiler alert! It was all a dream!]

When Lewis Carroll published a few thousand copies of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland in 1865, with no hype or buzz, it received some mixed reviews. That’s one of the few things Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland has in common with Carroll’s original stories. The critics were out this week, and occasionally perceptive. As of this morning, the “top critics” that Rotten Tomatoes tracks average at about 59% (between rotten tomato and ripe tomato), with the general masses giving it about 53%. Manohla Dargis of the New York Times, one of my favorite critics to disagree with, had some interesting insight into the Alice Paradox in movies:

Dark and sometimes grim, this isn’t your great-grandmother’s Alice or that of Uncle Walt, who was disappointed with the 1951 Disney version of “Alice in Wonderland.” “Alice has no character,” said a writer who worked on that project. “She merely plays straight man to a cast of screwball comics.” Of course the character of Carroll’s original Alice is evident in each outrageous creation she dreams up in “Wonderland” and in the sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass,” which means that she’s a straight man to her own imagination. (She is Wonderland.) Here she mostly serves as a foil for the top biller Johnny Depp, who (yes, yes) plays the Mad Hatter, and Mr. Burton’s bright and leaden whimsies.

Her conclusion, however, is vague and baffling:

This isn’t an impossible story to translate to the screen, as the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer showed with “Alice” (1988), where the divide between reality and fantasy blurs as it does in dreams. It’s just hard to know why Mr. Burton, who doesn’t seem much interested in Alice, bothered.

The great Roger Ebert, at the Chicago Sun-Times, admits he didn’t care for the books growing up, which possibly explains some of his strange tangents:

This has never been a children’s story. There’s even a little sadism embedded in Carroll’s fantasy. It reminds me of uncles who tickle their nieces until they scream. “Alice” plays better as an adult hallucination, which is how Burton rather brilliantly interprets it until a pointless third act flies off the rails. It was a wise idea by Burton and his screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, to devise a reason that Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now a grown girl in her late teens, revisiting a Wonderland that remains much the same, as fantasy worlds must always do.

[...]
Burton shows us Wonderland as a perturbing place where the inhabitants exist for little apparent reason other than to be peculiar and obnoxious. Do they reproduce? Most species seem to have only one member, as if nature quit while she was ahead.
How could he not develop that shocking exposée? Who was the Duchess’s baby daddy? Is there a Mrs. Mock Turtle!? I wish Carroll was around to explain the laws of dream procreation.
One more quote, I’ll give Elizabeth Weizman of New York Daily News my highly coveted Saying Nothing Award:

“Frabjous” may be a word Carroll invented, but Burton knows just what it means, at least in his own mind. He’s clearly excited to invite us inside, and as long as you’re open to so much muchness, you’ll be very glad he did.

This parsing of critics possibly to be continued… In the meantime, I have several questions:

-How come no one has discussed the influence of Miranda Richardson’s Queen Elizabeth I from BBC’s “Blackadder II” (1986) on Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen?

-Why was the Dodgson-esque figure named Charles at the beginning Alice’s dead father? What?
-Did the bizarre Chinese trade-route plot-line at the finale, which was guided on by the blue butterfly (née Caterpillar), have anything to do with opium (i.e., the possible contents of the Caterpillar’s pipe)? I know it was 2am and I had a headache from two hours of drinking wine in an IMAX with 3D glasses, but I think I may be onto a possible explanation for the otherwise unexplainable China thing.

8 comments to Criticizing the Critics, & futterwacking around the Alice Movie Paradox

  • Wendy Cazzolato

    Have just been to see the film and I totally agree about the Miranda Richardson”Queenie” thing though it seemed to wear off somewhat and Helena started to make it her own, but the first few lines were so much that tone.
    I think you are possibly right about the China – Opium thing too as the whole idea has much in common with hallucinogenic dreams and also shamanic ‘journeying ‘[ sometimes aided by entheogens where a ‘Lower World’ beneath this one is entered by a tunnel often under trees or through other portals, mirrors as in the looking glass being just one possibility.
    I was however thrown by her father’s name which was apparently ‘Charles Kingsley’ which of course is also the name of the author of ‘The Water Babies’ though I can’t find any other connections except like Charles Dodgson he was also a Reverend.
    Why is a Raven like a writing desk indeed……

  • Wonderlander

    I liked it. Saw it in IMAX 3D (some of the effects were very nice and the glasses were comfy) the coming attractions for the Hubble / Space Shuttle movie blew me away. If you get a chance, see it in this format.
    A little recurring annoyance was that they called the monster the Jabberwocky, and got the poem a bit mangled. But, on the plus-side, for all the hype about the Mad Hatter, they got it right and just called him “Hatter.”
    Basically, Alice is having recurring dreams about Wonderland (watch for the brief flashback to the original visit) and this is her latest; she is older.
    The animals (frogs, fish, rabbit, Dodo, and the bloodhound (??what???), etc.) are WONDERFUL.
    The closing credits are also worth waiting for (beautiful visuals).
    And, don’t forget to watch for member Andy Malcolm in the closing credits scroll.

  • I think the bloodhound was supposed to be the giant puppy from AAiW, all grown up with a family of his own. Which also contradicts Ebert’s point about Underland creatures not reproducing – they did show the whole hound dog family!

  • Scott Sentinella

    I’m sure that you know this, but Miranda Richardson actually played the Queen of Hearts in the 1999 film version of “Alice”.

  • Ike fanbelt

    The worm looked so content smoking his pipe. He guided Alice. I think the China syndrome was a pull to the vast Northwest Passage in that new lands and new peoples await, and beyond into new planets/worlds for the human kind, soon. 2012? Which might be emblematic of the evolution of the human soul? And knowing who the hell we really are. What brand was that tobacco?

  • I must say I did enjoy the film, but I didn’t love it. And I have almost always been in direct opposition to Manohla Dargis ever since her days at the LA Weekly. And if she thinks the Svankmajer film is a successful adaptation of Alice, well, I rest my case.

    Ebert is right in my opinion, the third act drags at a minimum, this is where I found myself most wanting to get a move on. The story itself is predictable and derivative of lots of contemporary materials that extend the Alice story (Looking Glass Wars, Wonderland comic, American McGee, etc etc). Burton does a fine job of making visually spectacular and creepy, but as with lots of his other films, just doesn’t know how to end it. That may be a symptom of his writers, but at the end of the day, it is the director’s show.

    All that being said, go see it, it is worth the 2 hours for the visuals alone.

  • For some reason only half of the post is being displayed, is it my browser or the site?

  • S

    I always suspected that the bloodhound was supposed to be the grown-up puppy from AIW.