Sunday, March 7, 2010
Alice in Wonderland
First, let me damn the movie with faint praise. When I was watching Tim Burton's Alice, I enjoyed it. That's important, right? My criticisms bubbled up in my brain after the experience. My brain saying: Hang on ... I'm not quite satisfied. What's missing? What went wrong? Unfortunately, if a movie doesn't leave you feeling satisfied, that's important too.
OK. I was expecting great things. The promise of the lobby display in the movie theater lobby really had me going. A bright, sunshiny, loopy depiction of the mad tea party, Johnny Depp holding court over it all in a crazy hat.
But the actual movie didn't work. Here's why:
Stories have a certain basic software. So, for example, the code running The Wizard of Oz is "Deliver us from evil/I want to go home." Dorothy, inadvertently, frees Oz from oppression in her quest to go home.
The code running the original Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass is not "deliver us from evil." The code is not a magical quest and a heroic battle. The code is: This is a goofy, sunshiny realm of logical paradox where anything can happen. Things transform into other things. Alice gets bigger, Alice shrinks, it's all very silly. Good news: It's a dream, so there's no real danger. It's play. It's fun.
Linda Woolverton's script is very well written, but she's changed the code. Alice in Wonderland now has a backstory, character motivations, and a fairly rigid Joseph W. Campbell-style logic. (And lots of massive, shameless stealing from The Wizard of Oz.)
Despite the bright promise of the lobby display, the Wonderland (or Underland) of Tim Burton's movie is now a dark, oppressed realm. The Red Queen, as Grace Slick once noted, is off her head. Alice is the Christ-figure who falls down the rabbit hole as a teenager. She's charged with the magical quest of delivering Underland from evil. She must take her vorpal sword in hand and fight and kill the Jabberwock.
I'm not saying this with a sneer. Woolverton's script is very well written.
It's just ... off.
The code that works for the Wizard of Oz doesn't work for Alice in Wonderland. When you graft a heroic quest on Alice's world, you kill the charm.
The fun of the original Alice is the sunshiny, irrational possibility of it all. Anything can happen; nothing can hurt you. It's not a story, anyway. It's just a dream. It doesn't make any sense, but it's fun.
Tim Burton's Alice is definitely a story.
Hell, it's a Disney story.
It's a story with a job to do.
Tim Burton's Alice does her job.
But it's not that much fun.