Keats’ “Ode on a Grecian Urn” reminds us of the eternal nature of art. In the poem, Keats observes the scene depicted on an ancient vase and con- templates the “present tense” of art: the young man is always just about to kiss his bride; the dog is always in mid-leap; the sword is always raised to deflect the soldier’s foe.
Tim Burton’s new “Alice in Wonderland” is like Keats’ urn. Although it takes place 13 years after the original tale, with Alice return- ing as a 20-year-old woman, nothing has changed in Wonderland. The Mad Hatter is still serving tea; the March Hare is still running late; the Queen of Hearts is still playing croquet with a hedgehog and a flamingo; and the Cheshire Cat is still blowing smoke rings while grinning from his tree. One gets the impression that they have been pouring the same tea and swinging the same flamingo at the same hedgehog for the past 13 years, awaiting Alice’s return, “for ever panting and for ever young.”
But something is amiss in this visit to Wonderland. The wonder and the whimsy are gone. Grown-up Alice (Mia Wasikowsa) is too somber, too wooden, and definitely too old. She doesn’t even remember her first visit down the rabbit hole, and she certainly is not glad to be there now. In one brief scene, the Hatter (Johnny Depp) reminisces about Alice’s first visit, when she was just 7. Young Alice (Mairi Ella Challan) laughs gleefully around the tea table with her new friends, aghast and delighted at their madcap lack of good manners. Twenty-year-old Alice expresses no such glee, perhaps because the Knave of Hearts is trying to make off with her head while she huddles inside the teapot. Not much fun there!
Too many fantasy films of late focus on climactic battles between forces of good and evil, presented in glorious computer-generated imagery. It’s like watching a video game. This “Alice in Wonderland” develops a similar plot. According to an oraculum (a prophetic scroll emblazoned with heroic feats, much like Keats’ Grecian Urn), Alice is destined to defeat the Jabberwock in order to unseat the head-offing Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter ) and restore her peace-loving sister, the Queen of Diamonds (Anne Hathaway) to the throne. Residents of Wonderland (or “Underland,” as they call it now) have been waiting for Alice’s return.
As Alice gathers her courage to face the Jabberwock, the White Queen tells her, “You cannot live your life to please others. The choice must be your own.” A good, strong, libertarian philosophy, to be sure. But does Alice really have a choice when her destiny is already written in the oraculum? Like the Mad Hatter, who has continued pouring that tea since Lewis Carroll first penned the scene, Alice already faces the Jabberwock unendingly in the painted scene.
Alice’s method of securing the special sword she must use to fight the Jabberwock also gives a nod to sound libertarian principles; instead of stealing it from the guard dog or fight- ing him for it, she gets something she knows he wants and trades him for it. Good show! But in the end, she resorts to traditional warfare to usurp the sit- ting queen.
Normally Tim Burton films are a visual and storytelling feast, and this one gets halfway there — the visual effects, and especially the costumes, are truly stunning. Every time Alice changes size via “Drink Me” and “Eat Me,” she has to get new clothes, and each costume is lovelier and more whimsical than the last. When she is her tiniest, the Mad Hatter quickly whips out a tiny gossamer costume for her with a snip-snip-dash of what used to be her sash, a subtle nod to Depp’s first stand- out role as “Edward Scissorhands.” The computer-generated sets are stunning as well — especially the Red Queen’s realm with its heart motifs everywhere.
In terms of storytelling, how- ever, this film falls flat. Burton says he wanted to make “Alice” feel like a story as opposed to a series of events, but in doing so he eliminated the childlike quality of Lewis Carroll’s original story. Children, after all, don’t see everything as a story with a beginning, a middle, and an end; much of life comes at them as a series of confusing and illogical events, and Carroll captured that.
I also suspect that producers at Disney tampered a bit with Burton’s vision, injecting certain Disneyesque essentials. For example, the Jabberwock looks uncannily like the dragon at the end of Disney’s “Sleeping Beauty” as it rears up at Alice who, dressed in princely armor, battles it to the top of a precipice.
Epic battles and prophetic heroes have a place in fairy tale and legend, but Alice belongs in Wonderland, and the two genres simply don’t mix. As much as I wanted to love it, I have to admit that Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” flops like a limp flamingo. Even Johnny Depp isn’t able to rescue this film.