The original Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll is a delicious Victorian oddity, a children's book whose bizarre dream world, unforgettable word play, and young heroine have captured the imaginations of artists as diverse as James Joyce, Dali, Jefferson Airplane, Jan Švankmajer, and, of course, Tim Burton.
It was only a matter of time until Burton tackled this classic, a dive into the subconscious littered with nonsensical rhymes and literally crazy characters. As the wonderful Annalee Newitz points out, "As [Carroll's] protagonist Alice moves from dreamy encounter to dreamy encounter, watching nursery rhymes coming to life and fighting bloodthirsty monarchs made of cards, we witness something that for the Victorians was just as stunning as a giant dynamo. Psychiatry was in its infancy in the 19th century, and this brave new science suggested there was a method in madness. The muddle of our dreams might illuminate the truth about human consciousness; the murmurings of madwomen could shed light on how so-called sane people think."
Sounds like perfect fodder for Burton and his misunderstood oddities and lovable outsiders, right?
Oh, so wrong.
As in the video game American McGee's Alice from 2000, a much-older Alice returns to Wonderland. In McGee's version, Alice is returning to a terrible place in shambles which she must fight through in order to get to the bottom of why it's falling apart in the first place. I'm not going into more detail here on the plot in McGee's Alice because there is a nice little twist that makes it a much more compelling story than Linda Woolverton's poorly paced script. Woolverton's script feels like an afterthought to Burton's desire to make a 3D Wonderland loaded with CG creatures. In actuality, the 3D effects were added later, making it a less authentic 3D experience than, say, Avatar. The AMC/Odeon squabbles might have been for naught, since Alice would be best enjoyed on the big screen, if only because there's so much going on, it's almost impossible for the human eye to keep up. And as wondrous as the talking animals are, as fabulous as the costumes are, as huge as the Red Queen's head is, it's nothing but a house of cards.
This Alice, played by Mia Wasikowska, is no less rebellious or curious; she refuses to wear stockings or a corset, to her mother's horror, and makes missteps while dancing with her repulsive would-be paramour, Hamish, because she's dreaming about flying like the birds overhead. Faced with a life-altering decision, she escapes to Wonderland, the place she's visited in her dreams since she was a little girl. What ensues is confusing for everyone involved, including the viewer. The backbone of Burton's Alice is that the denizens of Wonderland are expecting a savior as foretold in their magic scroll, someone who will vanquish the Jabberwocky on the Frabjous Day with the Vorpal sword. It just so happens that this savior as pictured in their scroll has long blonde hair and is obviously a young girl in armor; they know it's Alice, but is this Alice in front of them the right Alice? Who is the right Alice? What's the right or wrong Alice, anyway? And why should we care? Alice seems to know who she is, although not where she is, and that in itself is enough to let us know that of course she will slay the Jabberwocky, and of course she will go back to the real world and make the decision that she knows in her heart is right for her. It's a foregone conclusion.
On top of the plodding plot, the biggest misstep Burton makes is putting his nearly constant collaborator Johnny Depp front and center as the Mad Hatter. The Hatter serves as both a companion of sorts, a poor plot device, and, in one scene, a double for young Alice whom she must comfort as her father once comforted her after a Wonderland-inspired nightmare. Depp's transformation into a lisping, occasionally Scottish-accented Madonna look-alike is alienating and aggravating and pulled me straight out of the movie. Yes, we know Alice sides with the mad, the unconventional, the people who need saving, but just being subjected to his presence onscreen drove me, well, mad, and, more importantly, was yet another contrived and unwieldy addition to the plot.
Bonham Carter's Red Queen is the character that has profited most from Burton's update; she's bratty, with a slight Madeline Khan lisp and a deep neediness that turns to anger at the slightest provocation. Sometimes Wasikowska is too understated, especially in the real world sequences, but on more than one occasion glows with the slightest of smiles. Anne Hathaway's White Queen is hopefully a caricature of previous Disney royalty, with huge, empathetic eyes, a musical voice, a tendency to walk as if floating, and an incredibly annoying way of holding her hands and arms.
As far as marketing Alice to goths, this is obviously quite a bit darker than Disney. There are plucked-out eyeballs, icky creatures, and other creepy things I'd think would be far scarier for little kids than a caterpillar with a hookah. Naturally, the costumes are suited to Burton's vision, especially one spectacular dress Alice wears in the Red Queen's court. But I'm not yet sold on whether or not the Hot Topic crowd will dig Alice the movie or related clothes, jewelry, and tchochkes in the same way that The Nightmare Before Christmas or even Corpse Bride have, and I doubt fans will be indelibly inking themselves with these specific characters as they have with Jack and Sally or Lock, Stock, and Barrel. (Hell, I've even seen tattoos based on American McGee's Alice.) Alice has long inspired designers and artists, so I think that any Alice merch that sells will not be tied to, say, Johnny Depp's terrifying orange eyebrows but perhaps more generic symbols from the text itself. I do have to say, though, that the high-end Alice goodies are awfully cute...