My first encounter with “Alice in Wonderland” came when I defaced our family copy of Lewis Carroll’s children's classic as a 3-year-old.
I was just learning to draw stick figures -- the kind with a huge circle for a head and then straight lines extending from it for hands and legs -- and I decorated the first couple pages of “Alice” with my artwork. My mother was not pleased with my creative efforts and lectured me on why we don’t use books as drawing paper.
I bring this up because the creative team behind the latest film adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland,” director Tim Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton, have done their own version of doodling upon the original.
This is not so much “Alice” as “Alice, the Sequel.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. Plenty of memorable works of art use an earlier book, painting, film or play as their starting point. Playwright Tom Stoppard made his name by hilariously ripping off “Hamlet,” putting two of its minor characters front and center in his 1967 comedy “Rosencrantz & Guildenstern Are Dead.”
In 2000, “Shadow of the Vampire,” amusingly and hauntingly posited that Max Schreck, the actor who played the vampire in the 1922 silent classic, “Nosferatu,” was himself really a creature of the night. And Quentin Tarantino’s Oscar-nominated “Inglourious Basterds” rewrites history (while borrowing from numerous earlier WWII films) to end Hitler’s life with a rousing bang rather than a wimpy, self-inflicted one.
Such creative borrowing or morphing isn’t restricted just to plays and movies. In today’s art world, it’s known as “appropriation,” and entire careers have been built upon it. In the recording industry, of course, it’s “sampling,” with musicians judiciously weaving threads taken from predecessors into fresh musical tapestries.
Art feeds upon itself; it always has.
Carroll’s two fantasy novels, “Alice Adventures in Wonderland,” published in 1865, and “Through the Looking Glass,” its 1871 follow-up -- the two are usually published jointly as “Alice in Wonderland” -- have served as the basis for numerous adaptations and transmutations over the years.
In my culture-vulture memory bank, two stand out: Meryl Streep, clad in blue overalls, playing a wonderfully bratty, know-it-all Alice on the stage of New York’s Public Theater in 1981 in a musical version, “Alice in Concert” by Liz Swados; and “Dream Child,” an underappreciated 1985 film starring Australian-born actress Coral Browne (the third and last Mrs. Vincent Price) as an elderly Alice Hargreaves, the real-life inspiration for Carroll’s Alice. Looking back across more than seven decades at her relationship with the child-obsessed author, she finally faces up to the fact that it was curious and curiouser -- and not in a good way.
This latest “Alice,” shot in 3D, sends a now 19-year old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) down the rabbit hole yet again. She finds herself in a strange and mysterious place called Underland, which she visited years ago as a child, mistaking its name then for Wonderland and thinking the trip was all a dream. (Shades of Jay Leno!)
Many of the same people and creatures she met the first time are still there (the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter, etc.), but now Underland is ruled by the despotic Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, in the film’s funniest performance). Her response to the slightest challenge is to bark, “Off with his head.”
While visually this “Alice” is as imaginatively phantasmagoric as we have come to expect from Burton, about a third of the way in it seems to go on autopilot. The plot turns into a series of chases and battles, resembling all those other fantasy films that studios are turning out these days for youngsters raised on Harry Potter. As Fred, my 10-year old consultant on kids’ films, astutely put it after “Alice” had finished, “It’s supposed to be Alice in Wonderland, not ‘Narnia.“
Not helping is a way, way over-the-top performance by Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. Apparently, per the production notes, Depp decided that his Hatter would suffer from mercury poisoning, a true occupational hazard of Victorian-era hat makers thanks to a glue they used. The result: He flits from mood to mood and accent to accent, all while wearing a red fright wig that would make Bozo the Clown proud. Depp’s determinedly askew approach to roles can often enliven a movie, but here it’s just off-putting.
Burton, as New York City's Museum of Modern Art has proved with its current blockbuster retrospective on his art and designs, has an intense, loyal and large following. But between this limp “Alice” and his abysmal “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” it just may be time for the 51-year old director to put away children’s books and seek inspiration in the grown-ups’ section of the library.
Personally, I'm thinking remake of "Catch-22" or "Day of the Locusts."
Leah Rozen was the film critic at People Magazine for thirteen years, until she decided that seeing six to eight movies a week was cruel and unusual punishment. She has also written for the New York Times and such still lamented though long departed publications as Spy, Manhattan Inc. and New York Woman.