You know, it’s rather confusing where we draw the line in adapting works of literature to film. I’m referring moreso to how we can adapt literature to film. I mean, I guess novels that have been regarded as the “greatest American novels” theoretically deserve the pedant notion that the adaptation should resemble the source material to the letter, but then what’s to be said for the blasé approach for adaptations of older children’s books? Isn’t that classic literature? It may not be as conceptually stimulating or as intellectually enlightening, but don’t they have ideals, locales, and characters that have endured and been touted for generations? Shouldn’t the stories of J.M. Barrie or L. Frank Baum be preserved as delicately as Steinbeck or Bradbury?
Certainly, but we seem to have more confidence in taking more creative liberties with those than with other acclaimed classics. I’m not even talking about succinct Golden Books or even the fairy tales of Grimm or Andensen. I mean, full-length chapter books for children. Do we have trouble tracking the initial history of the source material due to the sundry of re-imaginings? Or have we just accepted the high amount of interpretations that trying to find any overriding constraints or cohesive link would be futile? I guess that last thesis is perhaps the most pertinent.
I reference this because I have not read any of the Carroll novels. I concede I am not as acquainted with as much literature as I aspire. However, there are a slew of different angles taken on Wonderland that I instead prefer to judge this film on not how it covers the territory, but what it adds to it. Besides, if I held this film against the standards of the source material, then the original Alice Through the Looking Glass would be the best bedtime regiment since a teaspoon of Melatonin.
The film begins with Alice returning to London after a three-year stint as a sea captain. Why? Because I guess they had to attempt somehow to turn Alice into a feminist icon, because, well shit, Mia Wasikowska ain’t gonna do it. Anyhow, she returns to find Hamish, her former fiance, has forced his dominance over her late father’s company. In what essentially a retread of the first film, she is faced with a decision she’s uncomfortable with (this time being whether or not to sell her ship or keep their home), her innocence and purity is transcendent over all of the townsfolk, yet no one understands and she finds her solace after entering a portal to Narnia…er…Wonderland…er…Underland.
However, her charming reunion is cut short, as the Mad Hatter longs for his family and Alice is sent on a time-travel expedition, which leads to her being fiercely pursued by the Red Queen and by Time itself (or a flamboyant Sacha Baron Cohen, however you perceive).
I actually quite enjoyed the 2010 Tim Burton film. I felt that he delivered a twisted, warped perspective and vision to a legacy that could easily be interpreted as “children’s books for the stoner soul.” I felt that the alterations made by Burton and returning screenwriter Linda Woolverton actually, contrary to half of popular opinion, enhanced his interpretation and gave Wonderland a darker majesty, dignity, and gravity to it. That said…I get it. I get the arguments against it. I could easily imagine being in that category of individuals. And to be honest, a number of the prevalent flaws were there.
One of the biggest issues of the film was that there was no emotional core or connection to any of the characters. They were thorough, poppy, stylized caricatures meant to entertain, not empathize with. However, in the context of Burton’s world, it worked well. And for better or worse, it did spark a renaissance of putting a modern, fresh spin on Disney classics. We may not have had The Jungle Book without Wonderland, at least not for a while.
This film is relentlessly boring. In reiteration, I liked the characters of the first film in spite of their shallow characterizations, not because of it. Because of that fact, I was virtually unable to invest myself emotionally, viscerally with any of them. Any other supporting characters seem more like half-baked conceits or lavishly reconfigured stock characters. The dialogue, from the intro to the coda, is ripe with expository, by-the-numbers statements and speeches about truth, love, family, integrity, and on and on with no brio.
The tragedy is that there is a massive amount of effort in this film, but to what avail? The actors do all they can with the material given. Despite the Red Queen being portrayed in a more overblown and obnoxious manner than the first film, Helena Bonham Carter has that panache to it. Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter is left to his own devices, which work mind you, but a director’s devices come in handy, as well. Mia Wasikowska as Alice is obedient, albeit mechanical. She doesn’t have the power or personality to go above a typical leading lady fantasy role. Anne Hathaway feels stiff this time around as the White Queen.
All these actors are on display without a firm hand or any confidence craft. I blame James Bobbin, whose only qualification is direction the two Muppets reboots and assisting Cohen in Da Ali G years. His direction is confused, his mindset timid, and his temperament is desperate. He’s outside his breadth and it shows. Even the visuals can’t compensate. The set designs are shockingly tawdry. There was hardly ever a moment where I bought that this wasn’t a soundstage or green-screen effect. The CGI hardly flourishes either, because very little has been added to this world. Attempts at humor are flat, awkward, and uninspired and the chase scenes are, overall, phenomenally rote. It just relies on a feeble, humdrum plot about time travel and family.
I can’t call it a complete lost cause. There are a few funny moments here and there, the final chase scene is undoubtedly the best part of the film, and the final moment between Alice and the Hatter was quite tender and heartfelt. Overall, however, this remains a curious product indeed. Why make this movie at all? Actually, I know the answer already, but why squander it? Why try to add a heart to the movie without adding soul to these characters? Why infuse a world not with versatility, but with primary vacuousness.
I mean, you can make the argument that Disney seems to fear the live-action genre, therefore audiences feeling more the artistic freedom and ecstasy in their animated fare, but I think we’re past the point of making that hypothesis. Sure, we have always had live-action Disney movies more magical than others, but we have seen directors demonstrate that there are no boundaries for Disney, not even in live-action. So why limit yourself? Whatever amount of demented spirit that was present in Burton’s Wonderland is predominantly eradicated. It’s technical, distant, cold, and much like Alice in the first film, lost.
RATING: Two out of four stars