Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland


Walt Disney mulled an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland for decades before producing an animated feature in 1951, although by all accounts, he didn’t much care for the prim little protagonist, let alone her supporting cast of “weird characters.” One wonders what Uncle Walt would have made of his studio’s 21st-century, 19-year-old Alice—a tousle-haired 3-D action figure, who not only consorts with weirdos but decapitates a dragon and drinks a vial of the creature’s glowing puce blood.

The brain child of renegade Disney disciple Tim Burton—born in Burbank, trained at CalArts, employed by the studio as an animator—the new Alice is casually absurd, off-handed in its violence, and doggedly on message. The movie is not just three-dimensional but blatantly programmatic. As scripted by Linda Woolverton (whose previous credits include Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King), Alice is a straightforward allegory of female actualization.

Indeed, Alice (embodied by Australian actress Mia Wasikowska) returns to Wonderland to escape her womanly fate—namely, an engagement to a particularly bilious aristocratic twit. She’s a runaway bride (who has already refused to wear a corset), and much of what transpires in that moist, warm realm down there (Wonderland is later called “Underland”) demands to be read in specifically feminine terms.

Upon arriving in Wonder/Underland, Alice easily passes the eat-me/drink-me test, growing markedly more relaxed as she accepts her bodily changes and adjusts her body image. Deflecting frequent attempts to challenge her identity, Alice may be the healthiest protagonist of Burton’s career—as well as the most conventionally attractive. Something that seems to have interested the director is the manner in which Alice’s outfits adjust to match her drastic physical alterations—the nubile girl is often in an unself-conscious but unmistakable state of dishabille until, having gained possession of the sacred Vorpal sword, she trades in her frocks for a suit of gender-effacing armor.

Alice may be a babe, but Eros is largely sublimated. Amid the digitally conjured white rabbits, Cheshire cats, and hookah-smoking caterpillars, Alice does encounter a pair of flesh-and-blood males—but Johnny Depp’s amusing Mad Hatter, his golden eyes matched by an orange fright wig, is scarcely more eligible than Crispin Glover’s thoroughly creepy Knave of Hearts. In any case, Wonderland is a gynocracy and, rather than romance, Alice is drawn into the rivalry between two sisters: Helena Bonham Carter’s irascible Red Queen (her CGI-created bulbous head accentuated by pursed, bee-stung lips) contends for power in Wonderland with the languid, girly White Queen (Anne Hathaway, who needs little more than death-pallor pancake and near-black lipstick to seem equally freakish).

Presiding over a theme park of total design, waited on by a frog footman, and terrorizing her deformed, prosthetic-enhanced courtiers, the Red Queen is by far the more amusing of the two siblings—as well as the more dangerous. This castrating mega-bitch not only unleashes the monstrous Jabberwock on Alice but her own competitive jealousy (“Arrest that girl for unlawful seduction,” she screams after her consort Knave makes an ill-advised pass at the temporarily plus-sized Alice). Of course, as passive and narcissistic as she is, the White Queen is hardly a suitable role model for Alice, either. The sister is going to have to do it for herself—and she does, regularly insisting that Wonderland is actually her dream.

Lewis Carroll’s literal-minded little Alice was something of a logician; Burton’s is comfortable with adult irrationality, although she’s hardly a hippie chick; neither is his Alice, sad to report, in the least bit lysergic. On the contrary, the movie is positively sober in its positive image projection and concern with itself as a business model. Like more than one recent movie, Alice seems a trailer for a Wonderland computer game—and it is. The final battle is clearly designed for gaming. So, it would seem, is the character of actualized as well as action Alice. It turns out that, back in the U.K., Alice even has a plan that involves expanding her jilted father-in-law’s enterprise to China. Walt’s corporate heirs must be proud.

On the other hand, Mouse Factory imagineers may be less taken with Alice’s 3-D, which is far less spectacular than that in either Avatar or Robert Zemeckis’s punishing Christmas Carol. Perhaps as a cost-cutting measure, Alice was shot normally and stereofied in post-production. The resulting 3-D is shallow and largely superfluous: Alice falling down the rabbit hole toward the camera is the big deep-space effect, although the caterpillar’s exhaled smoke is a niftier one and Burton makes the relative flatness work for him by giving Alice’s engagement party the quality of a paper-doll pop-up book.

Indeed, better three-dimensional Burton can be found at the Museum of Modern Art. As organized by Ron Magliozzi and Jenny He, the ferociously popular Burton show, now in its fourth month, is less a retrospective than a cabinet of curiosities. One enters as if into a funhouse through some creature’s mouth and down a long corridor, past a wall of Stain Boy animations, which functions as a sort of carnival midway, at least on the afternoon I fought my way into the show, when it was populated by a dazed crowd of dour dweebs, serious goth girls, stroller babies, and Japanese tour groups. The sound of Danny Elfman’s sepulchral hurdy-gurdy emanates from a darkened gallery where, surrounded by black-light paintings, a miniature carousel floats above a lightning globe, drawing one further into a suite crammed with Burton critters: Oogie Boogie, the cute li’l Martian from Mars Attacks!, a larger-than-life Jack Skellington, some fake heads from Beetlejuice, a cookie-making robot from Edward Scissorhands, and an assortment of unnamed, spindly bug-eyed things, some called “Tragic Toys for Girls and Boys.”

Burton’s spidery sketches may be minor, but critical mass gives them heft. Basically, the show is an assemblage of maquettes, props, paintings, and motion tests. The installation is dense, and the juxtapositions are often witty (Ed Wood’s angora sweater next to Cat Woman’s polyurethane jumpsuit and the Penguin’s black wicker baby carriage). There’s even one of Edward Scissorhands’s topiary animals out in the Museum’s sculpture garden. The “Dream of Venus” pavilion that Salvador Dalí designed for the 1939 New York World’s Fair might provide an art world analogue for the show, but Burton is heir to another tradition—the first filmmaker since Disney who could orchestrate a theme park. If our mayor wanted to give the city a gift (and himself a monument), he could do a lot worse than commissioning Burton to redesign Coney Island.