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GO ASK ALICE, WHEN SHE'S TEN FEET TALL

Reel Time
Dale Hill
www.flickwitch.com

            If you're interested in the progress of 3D technology, it's time for you to ankle on down to the Narrow Gauge Cinema for Tim Burton's “Alice in Wonderland.” Burton has done some wonderful stuff in the past, and his visual imagination has been compared to Terry Gilliam's. And, as in “Ed Wood” and “Edward Scissorhands,” he's been known to handle delicate little stories deftly and with great humor.

            If you've seen the trailers for “Alice” you know that it doesn't look much like Sir John Tenniel's illustrations for the 1865 original, or Arthur Rackham's wonderful pictures for the 1907 edition. Alice herself looks a lot older than expected, because Burton's vision is a sequel. Nineteen-year-old Alice has nightmares about a Wonderland she can't quite remember, and is drawn inexorably back there to escape  a marriage proposal from a supercilious snob. Where she lands is actually in an Underland that has fallen into ruin from the rule of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter in a star turn as a music-hall villainess).

            The Red Queen has stolen the crown of Underland from her sister, the White Queen, so all of Carroll's confusing characters have formed an underground resistance, if I may so call it, to find the Vorpal Sword, the only weapon that can slay the Red Queen's enforcer, the Jabberwock.

            Small worry, I suppose, that Burton has lumped together characters from both Alice books. I don't imagine many childhood readers will remember that the controlling metaphor of “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland” is a pack of cards, while that of “Through the Looking Glass” is a chess game. If the Red Queen is actually the Queen of Hearts while her supposed sister is the White Queen from the chess board, then nobody will care that Tweedledum and Tweedledee (a very funny, very creepy, double appearance by Matt Lucas of the “Little Britain” series) are from a different book than the Mad Hatter's Tea Party.

            Talking of the Hatter, Johnny Depp again attempts one of his extreme characters, his orange hair and eyes betraying the level of the Hatter's mercury poisoning. His problem is that Burton has loaded his character too heavily: the Hatter must be the endearing lunatic, and the leader of the resistance, and an actual haberdasher, and also the closest thing that Alice has to a love interest. That Depp pulls off as much of the combo as he does (he plots sedition in an atrocious Scots accent and shows up for the final battle in a kilt, with a claymore) is a tribute less to his talent than to his willingness to try absolutely anything.

            For the Comedienne of the Year award look no further than Anne Hathaway as the White Queen. She hold her hands in the air and twirls about like a demented ballerina when she's not concocting potions (listen carefully as she lists the ingredients) or condemning her sister to a Living Hell. She seems the most fatuously wispy of the W/Underland characters, when in reality she's a steel-hard realist; I would love to see the place after she's been in charge for a few years.

            I've almost got to the point that anachronisms in period movies don't bother me that much. When the young Alice and her father talk about being “completely bonkers” and “going round the bend” I hardly cringe, even though there are so many colorful – and authentically Victorian –  ways to say it.

            But when the screenwriter or director get something wrong just from misreading it, I quiver with indignation. Homer's poem is named “The Iliad” but the city in it is not called Iliad, it is Ilium. Carroll's poem is titled “Jabberwocky” but the monster therein is not called Jabberwocky, it is called the Jabberwock. Depp's Hatter gets it right when he misquotes the poem, but nobody else does. Maddening; what do they teach them in schools these days?

            Burton said he wanted to use Tenniel's original illustration as the design for the Jabberwock, and so he did, in a way. When the Red Queen finally summons it, it makes a smashing entrance, unfolding its wings atop a crag exactly like Chernobog from A Night on Bald Mountain in “Fantasia.” But if you'll check the Tenniel drawing you'll catch a subtle difference: Burton's Jabberwock sounds like Saruman and breathes purple fire, but Tenniel's Jabberwock wears a waistcoat – it's a proper drawing room monster, and that's the kind of whimsical touch that Terry Gilliam would have picked up on.

            Small wonder then that Alice has to get dressed in armor like High King Peter to slay the beast, and that it does no end of good for her self-image, so that when she gets back to the garden party in England she has the chutzpah to snub her fiancÚ, insult her would-be in-laws, and tell her delusional Aunt Imogen to get therapy (did I mention anachronisms?) before sailing off on the Road to Mandalay as a self-motivated Victorian businesswoman.

            That is, at bottom, the movie's problem: Burton uses the gorgeous trappings of Carroll's imagination, his delight in illogic and absurdity and his dreamlike shifts in tone and setting as an excuse to use hallucinogenic visuals (cf Jefferson Airplane reference supra) as background for a rather dull Victorian morality tale with an unconvincing feminist twist. It's really “Alice's Adventures in Narnia,” without the humor or the spiritual uplift.