Film | Sunday, 21 March 2010

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Whatever happened to Alice?

A preamble, lest I be misunderstood. I love inventive takes on established things, and I don’t believe in any form of innate, essential originality. Everything we do is an echo of the past, the trick is in how we do it. This was part of the reason why I championed Guy Ritchie’s recent take on Sherlock Holmes, against the stirrings of purists who denounced his vision as cheap and philistine. Holmes was a populist character in Victorian England, I would tell them… what Ritchie has done is merely the contemporary equivalent. Culture is a rich cauldron of accumulated delights we can all pick out of (provided the artist being picked has been dead for 70 years), and nobody should be placed under any particularly excessive pressure for choosing an item that may inspire reverence.
But then there’s the thing: it’s all in how you do it. And Ritchie, in my humble opinion, pulled off his act of revitalisation quite well: taking full advantage of the currently popular Victoriana trend and throwing the ever-dependable Robert Downey Jr in the middle of the proceedings. He gave us a fun, comic-book London, and an enjoyable story at the core of it, one that re-arranges several Holmes tropes to suit a simple but effective end. Ritchie’s own stylistic tics were kept in check, and any character would have survived the transition, given such a careful-but-fun rendition.
Tim Burton’s long-awaited adaptation of another Victorian classic, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, could have been similarly, well, wonderful. Burton, like Ritchie, is an auteur director with a dedicated fanbase, and Lewis Carroll’s classic oeuvre is, at the face of it, a perfect fit for his themes: childhood imaginations struggling with a hostile world, all wrapped up in surreal, often scary imagery. Sadly, however, what’s been churned out is something that resembles an emo version of ‘Shrek’.
The nineteen-year-old and bolshie Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is attending party which, unbeknownst to her, is actually her engagement bash. While she attempts to formulate a plan of escape, she notices a white rabbit with a pocket watch dart into the bushes. Curious, she follows the rabbit to a large tree, and tumbles down a hole that takes her to Underland, a strange world ruled by the dreaded Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who has assumed control of the kingdom by the simple dictum of decapitating anyone who dares disagree with her. According to a scroll detailing a historical timeline of Underland – which includes predictions of the future – it is Alice who will set the kingdom free by defeating the Jabberwocky, a powerful dragon-like creature under the control of the Red Queen. But is this Alice the same Alice we – and indeed the other denizens of Underland – know? While some of the creatures of Underland have their doubts, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and his friends are certain she’s the same girl who previously visited them years ago. When the Red Queen kidnaps the Mad Hatter, Alice attempts to free her friend and locate the one weapon with the power to slay the Jabberwocky, thereby restoring the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to the throne, and bringing peace back to Underland.
There are plenty of adorable visual ideas, and some of the characters truly sparkle. The dynamic between Stephen Fry’s Chesire Cat and Depp’s Mad Hatter is inspired and enjoyable, and perhaps the only point in which the film shows something vaguely resembling heart. There are moments of great humour, and the cutesy creatures are quite unhateable. The final battle, for all its ridiculousness – I don’t even want to imagine what Carroll would have made out of that in particular – is an enjoyable coda. Oh, and a plethora of British character actors – apart from Stephen Fry – join the party: Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar, Christopher Lee as the Jabberwocky (an unforgivable blunder, by the way: the monster is called the ‘Jabberwock’, ‘Jabberwocky is the name of the poem), and others, giving things a genteel flavour that counters the Hollywodisation somewhat.
But on the whole, this is ‘Alice in Wonderland’ played out as ‘Lord of the Rings’-lite… which really means ‘Shrek’ in Burtonian garb. There is no hint of nonsense, wordplay or surrealism here: Underland is a very literal fantasy world, which makes the whole experience far more humdrum than it should be. It is bad enough that Burton has more than exhausted his tics and trademarks, churning out one cartoon-gothic pastiche after another (‘Big Fish’ was a welcome break, but ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ saw him regress back into tired mannerisms). While it entertains, Burton’s take on Carroll’s classic delivers nothing particularly charming or new. One imagines that, without the stars or the expensive CGI (or indeed, Disney’s patronage), this adaptation would serve pretty well as a straight-to-DVD cartoon, to be forgotten as soon as it’s consumed.

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