Off With Your Hate! In Defense of Alice

Alice-In-Wonderland-Image1On August 3, 2014, Through the Looking Glass, the completely unnecessary sequel to Tim Burton’s garish 2010 blockbuster Alice in Wonderland, officially went into production. With James Bobin, director of the disappointing Muppets movies, replacing Burton in the wheelhouse, and nearly all of the main cast returning (minus Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts), the picture is scheduled for a May 2016 release. Meh.

I’m among the distant minority who legitimately enjoyed the original. So why don’t I want a sequel? Simple: the first ended in a perfect place and the second will not have the element of surprise that made its predecessor memorable. Anyway, Burton can adapt classic books like nobody’s business, as Sleepy Hollow (1999) and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) can attest. Case in point, Alice in Wonderland became only the sixth film ever to gross $1 billion at the box office, it gave us a kickass heroine, and won a pair of Oscars to boot,* so it must’ve done something right. Right?

Eh, apparently not. Instead, Alice spawned a divide practically wide enough to rival that of the Bush administration. Critics (51% on Rotten Tomatoes) and moviegoers either liked it or loathed it, but it was mostly the latter. There was almost no gray area at all. Naysayers were simply aghast that such a horrible picture made such obscene box office, animosity that in retrospect seems misplaced given that the likes of Transformers and Pirates of the Caribbean are also part of the ten-figure club. Therefore, I feel compelled to stand up and counter several popular opinions fueling the invective toward Alice with some of my own. (And you know what they say about opinions.)

Tim-Burton-s-Alice-In-Wonderland-alice-in-wonderland-2010-13677946-1360-7681. “The plot completely bastardized the books in favor of yet another girl-power story.”

Sure, the Lewis Carroll tales are still beloved to this day, but this has somehow also meant that they’re automatically beyond reproach. In reality, they’re just a random chain of events mixed with zero characterization, a sentiment shared by Burton when he joined the project. But judging by the reception to Disney’s turning the books into a three-act narrative, you’d think that it was up there with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. Penned by Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast), Alice’s 2010 odyssey was not meant whatsoever to copy the original story. (Disney took care of that already with the 1951 animated version.) According to Burton, nor was it a sequel or reimagining, but a new story in which the residents of Wonderland are desperately trying to find the “right Alice” who will return to end the Red Queen‘s reign of terror. This meant Carroll’s famous characters being given, for better or worse, more distinct identities, especially Alice herself, who was no longer a wide-eyed seven-year-old, but now nineteen and on the cusp of adulthood. She flees back to Wonderland to get away for awhile after being put on the spot by an unwanted marriage proposal, and boldly chooses to forge her own path in life upon her return. And it worked. The result? Just becoming the highest-grossing female-led film of all time** while spawning scores of March-release imitators (here‘s looking at you, Red Riding Hood, Oz, and Sucker Punch).

On a side note, there have already been seventeen other film versions of Alice, dating all the way back to 1903 (!). Did we really need yet another by-the-book retelling? No.

alice-in-wonderland-2010-201002050409226902. “Burton needs to keep his girlfriends out of his films.”

Now if we were in the late 1990s, when Burton was dating little-known actress Lisa Marie Smith, I would agree completely. This was basically the only reason she appeared in 1996’s Mars Attacks! and one of my favorite films, Sleepy Hollow, for which she was completely miscast. Helena Bonham Carter’s filmography has benefited to a degree from her relationship with Burton, whom she met on the set of his terrible Planet of the Apes remake in 2001 and has appeared in seven more of his films since. Don’t even think about crying nepotism, though, because she never fails to hold her own onscreen, whether juggling character roles or serious fare like The King‘s Speech, for which she received a well-deserved Oscar nomination. Could you think of a better choice for the bigheaded, bigmouthed, spoiled-brat Red Queen, whether she was bellowing “Off with his head!” every few minutes, hitting on a clearly disinterested Knave of Hearts, or needing a warm pig belly for her aching feet? No, because there wasn’t any.

Alice-in-WOnderland-madhatter-alice-fanclub-19221840-1366-7683. “Worst Burton/Depp collaboration yet. Then there’s that [expletive] breakdance at the end.”

For anyone keeping count, Alice in Wonderland represented the seventh Burton/Depp alliance. (The last was 2012’s Dark Shadows, but we‘ll just pretend that doesn‘t exist.) It’s no secret that Johnny Depp’s stock has nosedived over the past couple years, but back in 2010 he was becoming the biggest box-office draw in the world after the success of the Pirates franchise. It’s easy to dismiss Depp for consequently cashing in on another big-budget Disney production in Alice, but he actually put his back into it, because beneath the Mad Hatter’s manic ramblings, crazy chapeau and frizzy carrot-top ’do was an actual human soul instead of a mere nutcase. It didn’t hurt either that Depp had also done his research: the character’s in-film physicality was a visualization of the aftereffects of mercury poisoning that long ago afflicted milliners, and the descent into madness that resulted. I suppose purists couldn’t handle the thought of Alice and the Hatter having depth and developing a friendship like, y’know, real people.

But the real elephant in the room is, yes, the silly “Futterwacken” jig near the end, performed by the Hatter after Alice kills the Jabberwocky and liberates Wonderland. Sure, it’s utterly nonsensical, but it takes up a whopping thirty seconds in a 108-minute movie. And it was mentioned multiple times in the film beforehand. Don’t say you didn’t see it coming.

Tim-Burton-s-Alice-In-Wonderland-alice-in-wonderland-2010-13695462-1360-7684. “Alice was boring/flat/bland/dull/lifeless/insert other synonyms here.”

I saved this for last because it’s my personal pet peeve. I’d like to think that viewers who were of this state of mind, kind of missed the point of the character. In regards to Alice’s glum personality at the outset, well, let’s see: her father had just died, she was being shoehorned into marriage to a foppish snob, and felt trapped by Victorian-era societal expectations. Alice additionally regards her return to Wonderland with indifference because she believes it’s all a dream that she can awaken from anytime (hence, her sarcastic “curiouser and curiouser”). Of course, she learns that‘s certainly not the case, which begs the question: how would you react upon also being informed that you were mankind’s last hope who was prophesied as the slayer of a massive dragon voiced by Christopher Lee? I wouldn’t exactly be feeling chipper either.

Anyone who’s been around me long enough knows that I am a Mia Wasikowska fan. I’d never heard of her when the film was released, but by the time the credits rolled I was officially aboard. She gives a wholly believable performance (not to mention rocking that suit of armor) despite most of it being spent in front of green screens. Plus, what good what it have done to have Alice bouncing off the walls like everyone else? Wasikowska’s gravitas kept the picture from veering completely off the rails, and as I’d said in my Stoker review last year, she is an internal actress; she may look boring on the surface but dismiss her as such at your own peril. And she’s since used the resulting exposure from the film’s success to work with other noted directors rather than latching on to another big-budget franchise. We were definitely given the right Alice.

*— Best Costume Design and Best Production Design.

**— Alice held this distinction before being surpassed by Disney’s Frozen (2013) in 2014. It’s still the live-action leader, though.

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