Alice in Wonderland (3D)
d. Tim Burton / USA / 2010 / 108 mins
Viewed at: Cinema 1 @ Barbican (London, UK)

Still from Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

Ask the average movie fan if they thought Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland was a success. I wonder what the answer would be?

I’m guessing they’d say that, as a film, it would be a qualified ‘not really’. They’d likely say it was okay – not Burton’s best, but certainly not his worst – but that an Alice adaptation will always struggle to please everyone. I’m guessing they would also assume that, financially, it has been little more than a mild success, easily recouping its budget (including P&A) but hardly setting the world alight.

The truth of the matter is, Alice in Wonderland has burned relatively slowly (even quietly) but it has also burned steadily and brightly. And by brightly I mean blindingly incandescent.

You see, even if you keep an occasional eye on global box office figures (as I do), you might be more than a little surprised to discover (as I was) that Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is currently occupying fifth place on the worldwide all-time (unadjusted) box office charts, having only this past week creeped over the magical $1bn mark. Don’t worry, I’m not about to jump deep into the figures like I did with Avatar, but you’ve gotta admit that this is a staggering result for a film that was, at best, damned with very faint praise (particularly since it was largely due to its narrative and technological shortcomings).

That said, there’s no doubt that the success of Burton’s Alice can only have been helped by the success of James Cameron’s über-blockbuster and the subsequent stranglehold that only a 3D box office success can have on the forward planning of a cinema programmer. And lets not forget Disney’s marketing strategy, which I’m sure you’ll agree was rather extensive.

And yet there’s something else that undoubtedly helped this film along, something undeniably attractive about Lewis Carroll’s classic tale. After all, despite heading into the cinema expecting the absolute worst, in retrospect I did wonder how hard it really is to mess up a story that is as engrained in the public imagination as Alice, a story to which – whether you like it or not – audiences will bring their own baggage, from childhood and beyond.

Indeed like its central figure – who meets stand-ins for her real life counterparts in Wonderland like a nebulous Dorothy (and there are more than a few Wizard of Oz links here) – Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is haunted by ghosts of adaptations past. Some key characters are simply competing with definitive performances of yore (as good as Alan Rickman’s voice performance is, for some reason I still can’t shake the image of Sammy Davis Jr. as the caterpillar in a TV two-parter from 1985), whilst others seem merely pale imitations of performances from outside Wonderland (and I’ll eat my hat if anyone can prove that Helena Bonham Carter didn’t closely study the unique mannerisms and vocal tweaks of Queenie, Miranda Richardson’s riotous Elizabeth I from Blackadder.)

Indeed, this strong sense of what has gone before is exactly what hinders Burton’s Alice, but it is also precisely the thing that saves it from pitiful, insipid tedium. Unlike Burton’s version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) which undoubtedly suffered from comparisons with the singularly iconic 1971 adaptation Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory, his Alice actually benefits from its standing as yet another example of what has become a minor repertory classic. Countless film and television adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s Alice tales has meant that, even if a new version is slightly shoddy – and this one is definitely that – we are able to see the relative brilliance of its central narrative, no matter how mangled.

What really didn’t work in Burton’s Alice, however, was the 3D which, with the possible exception of the ‘down the rabbit hole’ sequence, felt utterly redundant. And then there’s the music: as much as I love Danny Elfman, he has really struggled to reach the heights of his early Burton collaborations and it doesn’t help that his score here is simply overutilised. Like Avatar, Burton’s Alice in Wonderland left me with a distinct feeling that it would be really nice to see a big budget mainstream Hollywood feature in which the music wasn’t a constant, irritating presence, willing us to feel sad, or excited, or scared, or joyous – or, indeed, one which didn’t rely on 3D to stand in for genuinely good storytelling.

This might not be the lament for a Burton of yore that I was expecting to write before I went into Alice in Wonderland, but it does feel perilously close. Sure, Burton’s Alice in Wonderland has its moments (Matt Lucas’ dual performance as Tweedledum and Tweedledee was a highlight for me), and its not as catastrophically bad as some might have you believe (notwithstanding Depp’s dance abomination), but this is a flaccid adaptation at best, reinforcing my assumption that what Burton really needs is a massive box office failure.

Perhaps only then will he be forced to reassess his current trajectory and attempt something approximating his earlier works: more pared down, more entertaining, less garish and overblown. Then again, perhaps he needs a budget so small that he can – and I realise this is tantamount to sacrilege – no longer afford to hire Johnny Depp, who continues to be a great actor but who long ago stopped appealing (to me at least) as the head of a Burton cast (excluding Sweeney Todd in which he is supposedly quite good and which, admittedly, I’m yet to see).

Of course, if it is a Burton box office failure you’re looking for, Alice in Wonderland most certainly isn’t it.

Oh, and if you want a genuinely strange, imaginative take on Alice, I heartily recommend that you forget Burton and head straight for the Svankmajer:

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