“Alice In Wonderland”: The Epic, The Saga

Last night I finally got a chance to see Tim Burton’s “Alice In Wonderland.” (Weirdly, it arrived at our local second-run, dollar theater on the same day it came out on dvd.) (*1)

As I’ve noted here before, I’m a serious Burton fan. I love his aesthetic, his sensibility, his intelligence, and the way he combines all of it in his films. (Sadly, his particular aesthetic — his artistic point-of-view — means that his films are often treated as kids’ stuff rather than serious works of art: all those creepy creatures and ghosts and goblins and probably-haunted gothic mansions.)

So, no surprise, I loved his version of “Alice.”

Cinematically it was astounding (I have to see it again, just so I can revel in all those plants and animals and uniforms.) And it had everything I love about Burton’s work: the dark and eerie, the shining white of The Good. The hilarious faces of the toadies and bad guys. The adorable frogs and rabbits.

And Johnny Depp was brilliant as the Mad Hatter: he turned what could have been a heavily made-up one-dimensional caricature into a person of great humanity, sorrow, and humor.

In many scenes, by the way, Burton also pays homage to what I think is perhaps the best film ever made: the 1939 version of “The Wizard of Oz.”

But as I watched, I also figured out why the critics were less than kind: he didn’t play by the Alice rules. In these seemingly simple, albeit eccentric, stories, he found something larger, more universal than other filmmakers have uncovered.

Heretofore, the Alice books have been filmed as either an exercise in surrealism (the 1933 version, which, if you’ve never seen it, you should) or as a kid’s movie complete with goofy characters; more fairy tale than anything else.

Burton, however, treated the story as an example of the great sagas/epics — think Beowulf, the Odyssey, any of theNorse sagas, the tale of Gilgamesh.

You get the picture: In Burton’s hands, Alice’s journey is one of self-discovery; of challenges faced; of trial and travail. Like all the great heroes, she is presented with a challenge before she can “return home.” She battles enemies, and her own doubt, in search of the reward of self-knowledge.

Was this a dark version of Alice” Sure. But how could it be otherwise when it was a tale of the fundamental human experience? (And like life itself, the darkness was laced with humor and journeys into madness.)

But I suspect the critics (and perhaps even audiences) were hoping for, I dunno, a more superficial treatment. Or at least a more conventional one. (*2)

So if you’ve not seen the film, I hope you will. It’s a brilliant piece of art, and one of the best from an artist who rarely screws up. You gotta love someone who is so completely able to convey the vision and mystery that fills his mind.


*1: I didn’t go see it earlier because a) was out of town for part of time it was here; and b) I really hate going to movie theaters. So many rude people. So many cellphones ringing and blinking.

*2: Now that I’ve seen the film, I’m reminded (again) of the way critics responded to another brilliant film, “Far From Heaven.” The film is set in the late 1950s, and was filmed in that glossy cinematic style of the ’50s. As a result, critics focused on its appearance and so completely missed the powerful point the filmmaker was making: that profound social change happens one person, one act of commitment, at at time.



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