[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.