Alice in Wonderland
When Tim ‘Gothic’ Burton makes a movie that uses Lewis ‘Surrealist’ Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass as a springboard, we have crazy expectations. When the very un-Disney Disney movie Alice in Wonderland did hit the screens earlier this year, many Burton fans and Carroll aficionados burred on about the film ‘not being crazy enough’.
Clearly, their definition of Carrollian crazy and Burtonish madness must have been something safely understandable, that at the same time would have left their heads reeling.
Thankfully, Burton’s Alice is not a visual version of a Grateful Dead long-jam show. It’s a masterpiece of stitching backstories to tell a story with an amazing visual sense of the surreal. The fact that the story starts with a 19-year-old Alice Kingsleigh — and not Alice Lidell, on which Charles Dodgson a.k.a. Lewis Carroll based her heroine — grieving for her dead father in one scene and finding herself in a unbearably Jane Austen-ish setting that is supposed to be her engagement party, gives the viewer an early signal that this isn’t the Alice story he knows.
Wonderland is Underland in Burton’s twisted tale and as we proceed with Alice, foretold by Underland mythology to be the slayer of the dreaded Jabberwocky, we find us leaving the beaten psychedelic path of Lewis Carroll and entering a bad acid trip zone.
This story hinges on whether this Alice, played with an interesting lack of innocence and wide-eyedness by Mia Wasikowska, is the real Alice. In one fell swoop, Burton introduces a Biblical element of a real ‘messiah’ into a young woman’s daymare of succumbing to the pressures of society.
Johnny Depp rightly takes the cake as Tarrant Hightopp, the Mad Hatter, with his all-akimbo flaming red hair and eyes shrinking and becoming saucer-like large according to the mood he’s in. And his mood swings are the kind that no lithium treatment can still. If Burton had turned Depp into an innocent ‘monster’ with scissors for hands flung into the horror of an exaggerated American suburbia in Edward Scissorhands (1990), here he makes Depp into a manic-depressive outsider in Underland, tragic in his hyper-coloured way.
Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen, Iracebeth, is a mutant spoilt brat with a literally big head. This isn’t a special effects film without a spine (like a certain movie depicting blue aliens). If Burton had recently loosened his grip on his two pet hounds, story-telling and visual atmospherics, this swirling, brilliantly-hued dark movie sees him ride on both reins firmly in grip.
Alice in Wonderland deals with the concept of multiverses (many ‘universes’), the notion of madness and sanity, society and the individual and dealing with anxiety.
As the Mad Hatter tells Alice as she prepares to return to her world, by forgetting him, he will cease to exist. If not for the grand illusions that Burton cooks and serves up, one would be tempted to tag his latest film as ‘existentialism on mescalin’.