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Disney, Tim Burton & Linda Woolverton deliver an “Alice” for the ages

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Disney, Tim Burton & Linda Woolverton deliver an “Alice” for the ages

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"Begin at the beginning and go on till you come to the end: then stop."

Said by the King to the White Rabbit in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland”

Okay. Then let’s start with the obvious. Which is that – up until now – there really hasn’t been a good movie version of “Alice in Wonderland.”

Oh, sure. There have previously been fine pictures that used various characters, elements and themes from Lewis Carroll’s books (1985’s “Dreamchild” comes immediately to mind. Thanks to Dennis Potter’s brilliant screenplay as well as the Jim Henson’s Creature Shop’s fantastic interpretations of the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, the Dormouse, the Caterpillar, the Gryphon and the Mock Turtle). But when it comes to straightforwardly adapting “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” to the screen ... Over the years, time & again, some very talented people have made heroic efforts but ultimately come up short.

The caterpillar, March Hare and the Mad Hatter as depicted in previous attempts to make Alice in Wonderland come to life
Copyright Jim Henson's Creature Shop. All Rights Reserved

The list of missed opportunities dates all the way back to Paramount Picture's 1933 all-star dud version of “Alice in Wonderland” (which featured W.C. Fields -- under ridiculously heavy make-up, I might add – as Humpty Dumpty and Gary Cooper as the White Knight) and 1972's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" (which featured future "Phantom of the Opera" Michael Crawford as the White Rabbit and Dudley Moore as the Dormouse).

There have even been several versions produced for television. Among them 1966’s “Alice Through the Looking Glass” (which featured Jack Palance as the Jabberwock) as well as 1985’s “Alice in Wonderland” (i.e. a star-studded Irwin Allen affair that – to give you an idea how awful the casting on this particular TV production was -- featured Steve Lawrence & Eydie Gormé as Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee).

Even Walt Disney came up short when he tried to transfer the “Alice” books to the big screen. Though his Studio’s artists & animators struggled for almost two decades to pull an emotionally engaging motion picture out of this whimsical source material (at one point, Walt even turned to “Brave New World” author Aldous Huxley and asked him to take a swing at adapting Lewis Carroll to the screen. Huxley’s efforts were ultimately rejected by Disney, reportedly because Walt could only recognize every third word in Aldous’ “Alice” screenplay), Disney’s 1951 animated version still missed the mark.

Disney's Alice in Wonderland poster
Copyright Walt Disney Productions. All Rights Reserved

Looking back on this troubled production, Walt eventually decided that the main reason that Disney’s original “Wonderland” didn’t won over audiences was because “Alice” lacked heart.

Well, nearly 60 years after the Studio’s first stab at adapting “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” Disney has now made another run at “Wonderland.” Only this time around, thanks to Tim Burton’s inspired direction and Linda Woolverton’s winning screenplay, “Alice” has (to borrow a familiar phrase from “The Wizard of Oz”) has heart, brains and courage to spare.

In fact, fans of MGM’s 1939 version of L. Frank Baum’s much beloved book are sure to see some echoes of that movie in this new Tim Burton film. Especially in “Alice in Wonderland” ‘s opening engagement party sequence. Where Alice’s fussy would-be fiancée, Hamish (Leo Bill) reminds us of the White Rabbit, Lady Ascot (Geraldine James) forebodes the Red Queen and Faith & Fiona Chattaway (Eleanor Geeks & Eleanor Tomlinson) are clearly meant to be stand-ins for Tweedle Dum & Tweedle Dee.

Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee in the Red Queen's court as seen in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland
Matt Lucas & Matt Lucas in "Alice in Wonderland."
Copyright 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Which brings us to Woolverton (i.e. a Disney vet who made numerous contributions to the screenplays of “Beauty & the Beast,” “The Lion King” and “Mulan”)’s brilliant screenplay. How is it that Linda succeeded where so many others had failed over the years? It’s simple, really. Instead of trying to adapt “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and/or “Through the Looking Glass” to the big screen, Woolverton wrote a sequel to Carroll’s stories. Where a 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) – who’s feeling pressured into an unwanted engagement and still grieving over the death of her father -- returns to Wonderland and finds a fantasy kingdom that’s very much in need of a champion.

You see, Iracebeth, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has stolen the crown away from Mirana, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the rightful ruler of Underland (That’s another one of Woolverton’s clever conceits. That Alice mis-heard the name of this fantastical underground empire during her first visit. Which is why she then called it Wonderland). And with the help of the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) and the Jabberwocky (voiced by Sir Christopher Lee), Iracebeth now rules the land with an iron hand. Enslaved the weak & meek and beheading those who dare to stand up to her.

Mind you, the Ocaculum (a kind of forward-looking calendar for all of Underland history) has foretold that – on Frabjous Day -- Alice will slay the Jabberwocky and thus free all those who suffer under the Red Queen’s rule. Which is why the White Rabbit (voiced by Paul Whitehouse) ventures out into the real world to try & find Alice and then bring her back.

Mia Wasikowska at the title character in "Alice in Wonderland" also starring Johnny Depp
Mia Wasikowska as the title character in "Alice in Wonderland."

Copyright 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

Unfortunately, everyone in Underland is expecting the White Rabbit to return with a 9-year-old girl. Not a 19-year-old woman who’s – again quoting from Woolverton’s screenplay – has lost her muchness. Her sense of self.

And given that Alice – when confronted with her fate – flat-out refuses to pick up the Vorpal Sword, the would-be revolutionaries of Underland are quick to declare her the wrong Alice. Only the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) immediately recognizes this young lady as what / who she truly is. Striding across a table full of crockery, he grabs this then-diminutive woman’s hand and says “It’s you. It’s absolutely Alice. You’re absolutely Alice. I’d know you anywhere. I’d know him anywhere.”

Now the ads and posters for “Alice in Wonderland” have been selling Johnny Depp as the star of this particular Walt Disney Pictures release. But – truth be told – the Mad Hatter is mostly a supporting role in this picture. But – that said – Johnny does a really great job with this part. Instantly winning the audience’s sympathy as this rather tattered & forlorn character who really doesn’t want to be mad. But who was left unhinged by this awful event that occurred when …

Matt Lucas, Johnny Depp and in Alice in Wonderland
Matt Lucas, Johnny Depp and Matt Lucas in
"Alice in Wonderland."
Copyright 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

No. I’m not going to spoil that part of this story. As it is, I’ve already given away far too many of “Alice in Wonderland” ‘s secrets. But what I will say is that Woolverton’s decision to give the Hatter a backstory, give this well-known Lewis Carroll character a definitive reason as to why he might have become Mad was sheer genius.

And the best part of “Alice in Wonderland” is that Tim Burton takes Linda’s screenplay and then layers it with these terrific visuals and solid performances where the film’s human performers interact seamless with all the CG creatures that inhabit this cinematic world. So that – in the end – this movie is a cohesive whole. Filled with all of the excitement & emotion that previous film versions of “Alice in Wonderland” have lacked.

In short, this is an “Alice” for the ages. Loaded with laughs (My favorite story-driven gag out of this movie has to be when Alice is getting ready to do battle the Jabberwocky. As she steels her courage, Alice tells the Hatter that “Sometimes I believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” To which the Hatter replies “That is an excellent practice. However, just at the moment, you really might want to focus on the Jabberwocky”), terrific visual effects as well as great vocal performances (wait ‘til you hear Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat and Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar), this is one “Wonderland” that you’re going to want to visit again & again.

Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska and Anne Hathaway in Alice in Wonderland
(L to R) Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska and Anne Hathaway in
"Alice in Wonderland."
Copyright 2010 Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved

AUTHOR’S NOTE: Given that the White Rabbit is famous for saying “I’m Late! I’m Late! For a very important date!,” I thought that I’d use today’s “Alice in Wonderland” review as an opportunity to apologize for this site’s lack of content over the past few days.

To be blunt, Nancy and I spent the 10 days traveling – driving down to NYC to check out the construction of the new Times Square Disney Store, then flying down to WDW to cover the grand opening / rebranding of the ESPN Wide World of Sports, then zooming out to New Orleans to tour the “Dreams Come True” exhibit at the NOMA before finally flying home just in time to catch Boston’s press screening of “Alice in Wonderland.”

And then -- what with having to come back home to New Hampshire and then dig our place out from under that week’s worth of snowstorms that occurred while we were away – it just got to be too much. We were exhausted. Nancy and I both needed a day or so there to rest, relax, regroup, recover. Which is why we stepped away from this website for a wee bit earlier this week.

Disney Store coming in fall 2010 to NYC  Times Square
Photo by Rebecca Moore

But the upside is … As a direct result of all that traveling that we did last week, JimHillMedia scored some pretty amazing stories. Several of which will be popping up on this site in the coming weeks.

So, again, my apologies for the lack of content over the past few days. But now we’re rested & refreshed (Well, I am anyway. Poor Nancy’s actually wound up a case of walking pneumonia. Which actually put us further behind schedule here at JHM. What with all those trips out of the woods to go visit the doctor and/or pick up prescriptions) and ready to get back to work.

Your thoughts?

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  • I'm rather excited to see the movie today...  

    A worry, though, has been that this sequel won't even be seen as original.  After all, we have already seen the fallen, dark, and demented Wonderland of American McGee's Alice and the warrior Alice of The Looking Glass Wars trilogy.  And since a movie adaptation of The Looking Glass Wars has been in the works since the first book was released, how will this warrior Alice affect that warrior Alice at the box office?  And then, of course, there's the American McGee's Alice movie that's been in and out of production for many years... somehow doubt that will ever see the light of day.

    As for the article...  I have to disagree that there has been no good adaptations.  Maybe not perfect, but still pretty good.   My favorite has got to be 1998's Alice Through the Looking Glass, which had Kate Beckinsale in the role of Alice telling the story to her younger sister.  And which had Ian Holm as the White Knight -- an actor who seems to have quite an affection for Alice having also been Lewis Carroll in Dreamchild and Jack the Ripper in From Hell (ok... not quite, but there is a theory that the Alice books contained clues about Carroll's identity as Jack).  Maybe not perfect, but this made-for-TV movie is the only one that seemed to actually get the book.   It's also the only one that had included the deleted Wasp in a Wig sequence.  And stylistically wonderful -- the White Knight's poem of the aged man sitting on a fence done in the style of a Buster Keaton silent film is particularly wonderful.  I always catch something new about this film every time I see it -- took me a couple viewings to even notice that Alice's dress and bows are different in absolutely every scene.  And yet, even with all this, it's still the most accurate, almost word-for-word, adaptation.

  • I'm looking forward to this film. However, I still hold a soft spot for the Disney animated version. I never read the books and the Disney animated version was my introduction to the Alice stories.

    Also: Jim, it's great to hear you folks are getting dug out. I hope you manage to get some rest between digging out and writing more articles.

  • I'm glad you liked the film, Jim, but the other reviews are not nearly as glowing -- in fact, they tend specifically to lament the *lack* of heart, which you claimed was present in great quantities.

    Personally, I think giving characters like the Hatter distinct backstories and explanations is defeating the whole point of the original tales, but I dunno, maybe it works here.

  • Oh and I didn't think the 1986 TV version was all that bad.  Steve and Eydie as the Tweedles is a bit odd, but they sing so nicely together...  =)  And Ann Jillian and Phyllis Diller as the Red and White Queens were brilliant, IMO.  Jonathan Winters as Humpty Dumpty, too.

    Telly Savalas as the Cheshire Cat was just plain weird, though.  =)

  • Ok...   I've seen it and I must say, while enjoyable, it didn't have that great of a story.  The whole thing was based on Jabberwocky -- Alice battling this dragon that never actually appeared outside of a poem in a book she read has been done before.  "Alice in Wonderland" isn't what the title of the movie should have been as it confuses it too much with the original Disney movie.  And considering that she was never in "Wonderland," it's even more misnamed.

    So, a lot of stuff we've already seen before with the Wonderland in ruins, warrior Alice, Alice vs. Jabberwocky, etc.  I also found the card soldiers to look way too much like the ones of The Looking Glass Wars.

    It had a lot of potential.  It was still an enjoyable movie.  It just should've taken a much more original route if it wasn't going to be an adaptation of the books.

    Biggest complaint:  Mad Hatter mispronounces Borogoves in exactly the same manner that always irritated Lewis Carroll.

  • Complaints?  How about naming the dragon "Jabberwocky", which was the name of the poem the Jabberwock appeared in?

  • Thank you for your wonderful review! it's such a wonderful movie and my favorite live action film!

    You're a wonderful person.

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