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'Alice in Wonderland': Curious and curiouser

March 5, 2010 |  7:30 am

Tim Burton is a visual genius. In another century, he would have been a painter ... or no, a diorama artist, the kind of person who would have had his own Wonder Cabinet, that precursor to the modern natural history museum.

What Burton isn't, however, is a storyteller. Of his films, I can count on less than five fingers ("The Nightmare Before Christmas," "Beetlejuice," "Batman Returns," "Sweeney Todd" ) those that don't collapse under their own lack of narrative urgency. Unfortunately, "Alice in Wonderland," which opens Friday, is not among them; it's a beautiful movie, but one that ultimately has an empty core. Yet unlike other Burton movies, the problem isn't that the story tries to do too little, but that it tries to do too much.

That's because "Alice in Wonderland" operates from a flawed premise -- it is not an adaptation so much as an extrapolation, even a sequel in its way. In this version, Alice is a young adult, almost 20, and her visit to Wonderland is not a journey of discovery but a return to a place she visited as a girl and then forgot. Gone is the delightful meandering quality of the original, in favor of a tortured saga of good and evil, conquest and redemption, ending in a battle straight out of a "Narnia" film. Gone is all the trippy innocence; if there's a druggy vibe to this movie, it's less the dreaminess of opium than the scorched-earth violence of meth.

To be fair, Burton has always operated from a dark vision, but in his best work, he leavens it with a macabre light. There are traces of that here (mostly in Johnny Depp's delightful turn as the Mad Hatter), but for the most part, it's a joyless trip to Wonderland -- or Underland, as we're informed it's actually called. The whole exercise raises a couple of inescapable questions, beginning with the age-old one about why Hollywood always has to "improve" everything; why it can't leave well enough alone.

But more to the point, if -- like Burton -- narrative is not your strong suit, why mess with what has been, since its original publication 145 years ago, a story universally beloved?

-- David L. Ulin