If you haven’t noticed yet, I have a very dark sense of – well, of everything, actually. I’m a bit of a cynic and my aesthetic tastes tend to reflect that disposition. So when I heard that a new film was being produced based on Lewis Carroll’s Alice novels, I did a very brief, very private happy dance – or at least I would have if I wasn’t too jaded to believe it would be any good.
I first read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland when I was about six years old. It scared the everloving shit out of me. Carroll’s imagery is so deceptively child-like and relatively innocent (if a bit drug-induced: suggested but never proven) that it draws you in with promises of pleasant fantasy. It’s anything but. Prophetic caterpillars, murderous walruses, schizophrenic men in funny hats, anthropomorphic playing cards, an obsessive-compulsive rabbit in a waistcoat, and a disappearing cat who speaks in verse? This is the stuff of those bad acid trips you’d hear about in Nancy Reagan’s “Just Say No” propaganda back in the 80s. And as a kid with a hyperactive imagination, I can say with no shame whatsoever that I had terrible nightmares about being stuck in Wonderland, not understanding anyone, and being chased by a psychotic self-styled monarch with a penchant for the guillotine.
As an adult, I realize that’s precisely what I liked about the Alice stories. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Carroll created such a convincingly hellish alternate reality that you found yourself, like the titular character, drawn through the looking glass of his prose and into that frightening world. Because madness is frightening, and the potential for it resides in all of us. I think what makes Carroll’s books so appealing to me both as a child and as an adult is twofold. As a child, I was capable of believing, on some base level, in the absurd possibility that Wonderland might indeed exist, and therefore Carroll’s stories were scary in a very present, real way. As an adult, I recognize Wonderland as an allegory for insanity (or at least, that’s what I read into it) and the idea that an unreal scenario could be perceived as real – so real it might kill you – makes the stories scary in a very existential, philosophical way.
Whew. That was a lot of rhetoric for first thing in the morning. Sorry. I’ll do a dick joke or something later.
Anyway, bottom line is I loved – and still love – the darkness and disconnection of Carroll’s original works, so when I heard the new movie was being made, I really hoped it would follow the trend that seems to have gripped Hollywood in the last few years; that is to say, the remakes they’re coming out with are much darker, denser and grittier than anything that’s come before. The recent Batman films are a perfect example. With that in mind, I was genuinely excited to see a film rendition of the books that looked like American McGee’s imagining of that universe in his brilliantly-executed game Alice. Check out what I mean:
See? Good and scary, like it should be.
Now, I have better things to do with my time than monkey around on the internet all day learning about ultimately useless pop culture trivial (that’s what I keep Brent around for), so I sort of lost track of the filming process for the new film – until today.
Turns out Tim Burton has directed the project (and I doubt if I have to tell you what he’s done before) and the screenplay was written by one Linda Woolverton – you don’t have any idea who she is, and that’s okay. This is where the trouble begins.
First let’s deal with old Tim. I’ll go on record saying I’m a fan of quite a bit of his work. I thought Edward Scissorhands was really unique and a lot of fun to watch. The first two Batman flicks were pretty good, if only for the outstanding supporting acting, but they were a bit campy compared to what I wanted to see from that franchise (a vision later realized by Christopher Nolan). Nightmare Before Christmas was just brilliant. I genuinely loved Big Fish. And I had a great time watching Johnny Depp ham it up in Sweeney Todd. Tim is one of those filmmakers I can deal with in measured doses – it’s rare that I’ll watch one of these films, but every time I do I’m reminded why I bought them in the first place.
But let’s not forget that Tim was also responsible for some of the worst stinkers of the last twenty-five years. Pee Wee’s Big Adventure should be enough to convince everybody, but if you need more, add the the head-smashingly stupid Mars Attacks (and yes, I realize it was meant to be that over-the-top – doesn’t mean I have to like it), the abysmal remake of Planet of the Apes, and of course the extremely unsettling adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory which bears the double distinction of being the one Johnny Depp movie I really don’t like, as well as making me wonder if I was ever molested as a young child by an inordinately pale man in a very tall hat.
My biggest problem with Burton’s style is that in his fantasy stuff, he’s constantly going for a gothic feel that just doesn’t quite make it, in my estimation. It’s dark, sort of, but it’s self-aware dark. Nicholson’s performance as the Joker was fabulously macabre, but it was offset by all those goofy fuckers in clown outfits leaping around like they just stilt-walked off the set of the 60’s Adam West series. I half-expected to see those cartoon “boom”, “whammy” and “ka-blam” images pop up every time Keaton plowed one in the face. It’s just silly, and it’s really not the kind of thing I want to see out of Alice.
And then there’s Ms. Woolverton, the screenplay writer. Simply put, the woman is a Disney hack. Her credits include Beauty and the Beast (tale as old as time, my aunt Mabel), Homeward Bound: the Incredible Journey (animals voiced by A-list celebrities in a heartwarming tale of blah, blah, blah, excuse me while I set myself on fire), The Lion King (the only time I’ve ever wanted to stab Elton John repeatedly in the face was when I heard “Can You Feel The Love Tonight” for the nine thousandth time), as well as a bunch of scripts for such mid-80s television classics as Ewoks (all right, that’s kind of cool), the Real Ghostbusters (also not shabby), Chip ‘n Dale’s Rescue Rangers (ahh, there’s the Disney effect), DuckTales (I’ll give her this one) and Alvin and the Chipmunks (wait a minute).
I’m sure she’s a very nice woman, and for what she does, I’ll give her the credit she deserves – she’s a good writer. But once again, this isn’t Michael J. Fox as a spunky, heroic bulldog – this is Alice.
It only got worse when I saw the trailer. Here, you can watch it too:
ALEX JAMES EDIT: I am aware this version of the trailer looks like shit. That’s because Disney pulled the YouTube trailer down. Because they’re idiots who don’t like free advertising.
ALEX JAMES EDIT #2: Apparently somebody at Disney grew a brain overnight, because the trailer is back up. Go figure.
Problem one: it’s a Disney flick. I’m not poking more fun at Linda here – it really is a Disney production. For me that’s already a warning bell. It’s been literally years, I think probably a decade, since I genuinely enjoyed anything Disney brought out. Everything I’ve seen over the last ten years has just been recycling the same crap over and over. More to the point, Disney is effectively a children’s label in the movie industry – young adults at very best. The Alice I so wanted to see wasn’t going to get made by these Mickey Mouse motherfuckers, not on your life.
Problem two: I love Johnny Depp. I genuinely do. I think he’s one of the most talented actors in Hollywood, and I can’t wait to see him reprise his role as the late, great Hunter S. Thompson in the upcoming Rum Diaries. But these roles, these particular roles, are starting to grate. Willy Wonka; Sweeney Todd; I suppose you’d have to put Hunter in that category; Captain Jack; and now the Mad Hatter. It all starts to feel a bit the same after a while. I’m not faulting Tim for using Johnny in so many of his films – as Brent pointed out, guys like Jim Cameron have been doing that forever – but give him a bit of variety, would you?
Problem three is related to the second: I love Helena Bonham-Carter quite a bit less than I love Johnny Depp. First flick I saw her in was Fight Club and she was perfect. But like Johnny, she’s been typecast a bit, into the role of the weirdo broad who’s more than a little unhinged and kind of gross-looking. Sorry Helena – if you’re reading this I’ve seen you in real life and I think you’re beautiful, but in front of the camera they go out of their way to make you look like hell on toast. And she’s another one Tim taps for all his projects – I just feel like another Tim Burton film starring those two is just going to be a repeat of the same old stuff they’ve done time and again.
Final problem and then I’ll leave you to your breakfast (for me it’ll be coffee and smokes, which I’ll richly deserve when I’m finished with this monstrous “little” post): the movie itself, at least from the trailer, looks worse than Helena does at the end of Sweeney Todd. It’s trying to be seven hundred things at once – live action, CG, stop-motion animation, motion-capture film – it’s too damn much. The whole thing looks like Sony Pictures Imageworks took a huge rainbow-coloured dump all over the format, stirred it with an egg-beater until it reached frenetic speeds, then fired it out of a cannon directly into a brick wall. It’s chaotic, it’s nauseating to look at, and it’s way too bright. Everything in Wonderland is just so shit-happy it gives me cavities. There’s nothing sinister about Burton’s vision of Alice’s descent into madness – it’s all sunshine and bunny rabbits and it’s all too much for me.
Okay, so I’ll probably go see this flick when it comes out, if only to either gratify my enormous ego with the fact that once again I was right and the glass was indeed half-empty, or else to be pleasantly proven wrong by a great film. I’ve only seen the trailer, and I’ve imputed my considerable judgmental streak on everyone involved in making this movie as a direct result of that experience. That might not be fair. On the other hand, it might be spot-on, and frankly I’m not holding my breath for the former.
At least when I’m inevitably left in a state of titanium-melting fury after watching Burton’s adaptation, I can fall back on the rallying cry of literary nerds and intellectual elitists everywhere:
Now if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got a very important date on the wrong end of a looking glass. Catch you on the flip side.