Alice’s Adventures in Mediocrity

24 Jul

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.

glass half empty pessimism

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.

queen of hearts

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.

Penis Joke

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.

tim burton

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.

johnny depp willy wonka

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.

adam west batman

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?

johnny depp mad hatter

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.

helena bonham carter red queen

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:

nerd opinion book better

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.

18 Responses to “Alice’s Adventures in Mediocrity”

  1. Dead Cat on Bathurst July 24, 2009 at 10:02 AM #

    To start this rebuttal I’ll point out that you left out Sleepy Hollow AND Beetle Juice! I’m sure you’ve got plenty of opinion on Sleepy Hollow but it was a fantastic (and VERY dark) live action take on a classic story. Beetle Juice is Beetle Juice….you’re lying if you want to try and tell me there isn’t a single aspect of your life influenced by this movie, even indirectly. Tim Burton has a style and, like any artist, he sticks to his style very well. You can identify a Tim Burton movie pretty easily and that goes to show how great of an artist he is. I’m sure you would’ve told Picasso to stop using so much blue. Congrats.

    Yes, its a Disney flick. That’s what happens when they OWN THE RIGHTS TO THE STORY!! It’s not on the auction block, its not up for debate. Disney owns Alice in Wonderland so a remake of it will be affiliated with Disney in some capacity. That doesn’t mean they were going through the script with a highlighter deciding what to cut out of the movie though, it just means they own the rights and will get a cut of the profits. Welcome to the corporate world.

    Johnny Depp, like Tim Burton, has a great track record. Cant win em all but as a wise man once said: “Led Zeppelin didn’t write songs everybody liked. They left that to the Bee Gees”. Thanks Wayne….you’ve proven my point.

    Helena Bonham-Carter…’re really looking for something to pick on now. She’ll be great, she looks great for the part and we both know she’s an amazing choice.

    Your final problem stinks. You’re identifying elements that are all incorporated in a Tim Burton movie. Again, go ahead and tell Picasso to stop painting in blue. You’re wrong, your opinion stinks and I challenge anyone to defy me.

  2. Lainee July 24, 2009 at 10:04 AM #

    American McGee’s Alice was fucking brilliant!
    (and I must admit, I’m STILL stuck at the same spot I was last year — damn riddles [and damn my lack of determination])

    But a Disney movie?!
    Why oh why do they have to get their grubby little mouse-hands on everything?
    (…oh yeah, they have the $$$)

    I’ll still most likely go see it, as I too love Johnny Depp.
    You’re right though, Burton’s definitely a hit/miss kinda guy.

    Maybe if I go with enough happy thoughts & pixie dust, it won’t be half bad.

  3. Brent C July 24, 2009 at 10:31 AM #

    Dead Cat on Bathurst…Disney does not own the rights to Alice in Wonderland, neither does anyone else, it’s public domain. If you wanted to go out and make porn using the Alice character as long as it’s based off of the original stories and not the Mouse animated version. In fact, Alan Moore already did with his grphic novel Lost Girls.

    Beetlejuice is actually kind of boring. It has moments that are decent but on awhole it never worked for me.

    The problem with Burton is he tends to be very much style over substance. When that style completelty overshadows story and plot is when it becomes a problem, his better movies tend to be those that have a good balance of both (for the record, Butron’s best film is Ed Wood).

    The thing is that Alex and a majority of the people reading this need to remember is this is a movie aimed at kids. It’s not meant for us.

    Any sensable person over 20 can see that from a mile away. Much like Transformers, this is a movie to sell toys and theme parks.

  4. Sandra Lee McGee July 24, 2009 at 10:41 AM #

    I heard from a couple people that Rob Zombie might be coming out with his own version of Alice in Wonderland (but if Disney owns the rights, it might be impossible). Couldn’t find too much online evidence to support it though.

    He would have probably done a better job of adding the darkness that you so desperately want

  5. Alex James July 24, 2009 at 10:44 AM #

    I’m not sure if Rob Zombie would bring the darkness I’d be going for — I saw his remake of Halloween as well as House of 1000 Corpses, and I genuinely didn’t like either one. Macabre is one thing — pornographic violence for its own sake is something very different. Then again, who knows? Maybe it’d be his masterpiece. I guess we’ll never find out, which is okay — I still have Carroll’s original writing to feed my nightmares :)

  6. Shayla July 24, 2009 at 11:14 AM #

    The thing about Tim Burton is he always does his own thing. That’s why it’s always “TIM BURTON’S Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “TIM BURTON’S Batman.” If you’re partial to the original feel of the movie/book/whatever he’s doing, you might hate what he comes up with because he tends to scrape off the original author’s tone and atmosphere in favour of his own. Fortunately, he was a quirky style so this often works out.

    I was excited for him to do Alice in Wonderland because I think his dark and fantastical style would compliment the book well. The bit about Disney and the Disney writer certainly does suck though. I guess I’ll have to wait and see if it works out.

    I must admit I’ve only read part of the book (I got bored because Alice talks so fucking much). The story has always interested me, however, and I do intend to read it before seeing the movie.

  7. Alex James July 24, 2009 at 11:18 AM #

    I guess I enjoyed the book because I related to Alice, then ;)

    I dig what you’re saying and there’s something to be said for an artist of any stripe bringing his or her own unique flavour to an adaptation (playing in a bar band, I do it all the time), but like I said, Burton’s stuff is hit-or-miss for me. Example: I thought “Sleepy Hollow” was an outstanding adaptation that was true to the darkness of the original Washington Irving story. With “Alice” I guess I have a different set of parameters, and since Disney has its mouse-paws on this project I’m not expecting something near as good.

    But yeah, you should definitely read the books. They’re fantastic, especially “Looking Glass”.

  8. Dead Cat on Bathurst July 24, 2009 at 12:44 PM #

    If I’m wrong on Disney then I stand corrected. Condemning a movie based on an affiliation with Disney is probably one of the most empty-headed statements possible though. Do you have ANY IDEA of the long list of companies owned by Disney?

    If you can pick a more suitable director to work with Alice in Wonderland I’d be more than happy to hear you (anyone) out. I think taking this story and putting it through the Tim Burton machine is a fantastic idea though!!

    Rob Zombie movies aren’t for the “general public”. Tim Burton movies are. Zombie doing this would be amazing, but it would limit the potential audience. I cant wait for Halloween II and Tyrannosaurus Rex sounds pretty cool too.

    Bottom line: you can take this and enjoy it, or you can fester over it and trash it on the internet. I’m sure Tim Burton & Co. would be heartbroken though.

  9. Alex James July 24, 2009 at 12:49 PM #

    But if I didn’t fester and trash, my life would be so hollow and joyless! Some say the internet is for porn…I say it’s for fleshing out opinions and having debates. Thanks for your comments.

  10. Ashley July 24, 2009 at 12:53 PM #

    Tim Burton takes on one of the most controversial Disney movies of all time? Yeah, I’ll save the date….But I won’t spring for IMAX 3D.

  11. ryan July 24, 2009 at 3:31 PM #

    I’m on the fence about this one. It seems as if Burton is clinging to the formula of casting Johnny Depp in film adaptations of popular fantastical children’s books. (Was Charlie and the Chocolate Factory even successful? I probably won’t see it, considering the original Willy Wonka himself, Mr. Gene Wilder, has this to say about it, “It’s all about money. It’s just some people sitting around thinking ‘How can we make some more money?’ Why else would you remake Willy Wonka?”)

    That being said, I can’t think of a director better suited for directing Alice in Wonderland.

  12. Dead Cat on Bathurst July 27, 2009 at 4:24 PM #

    You cant pick on Tim Burton for having actors he has preference to. Its almost like a calling card when you’ve often got some serious recurring talent in your movies. Look at Judd Apatow and his band of characters you can count on to bring you some laughs in his movies. Look at the same guys stepping up in every movie Adam Sandler does (which he produces). And if you’d like to point at me and call MOOT for talent, look at Martin Scorsese using Leonardo Dicaprio….and there’s no way ANYONE can knock Scorsese.

  13. Michelle July 27, 2009 at 7:26 PM #

    I’m probably not going to see the movie. I like Alice in Wonderland, but the movie doesn’t seem that appealing. I might change my mind, but I’m not a movie goer, so a movie has to be pretty damned special to be one of the five-ten films a year that I’ll actually pay money to go see. I’m also sick of Tim Burton using Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter for everything (though unlike Alex I’m much fonder of Helena Bonham Carter than of Johnny Depp) since it makes his movies start to feel alike (in my opinion anyway).

  14. TD September 6, 2009 at 11:02 PM #

    I do agree with you on a couple things. Yes Helena and Johnny do really weirdo roles, and she looks really wacked out. Have you ever considered they are comfortable with themselves to the point where they dont care how they look in character? They probably play the weird roles cuz its fun or challenging. Don’t pick on them cuz they veered off onto a different road than other actors who are always playing the hunk (Pitt) or the glamor girl (Hathaway).

    Johnny and Helena are both great actors.


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