The title of Tim Burton’s new film plays an elegant and dizzying little game, entirely in keeping with its tone and theme. This movie shows us Alice in Wonderland but it is not a film of Alice in Wonderland, or indeed of Through the Looking-Glass, although most of its characters are drawn from these two books. The screenplay is by Linda Woolverton. Alice is 19 now, she has been dreaming of Wonderland for many years. We have seen her as a little girl, in a brief prelude, being reassured by her father that it’s all right to have strange dreams and a good thing to be crazy anyway, because all the best people are. I’m not sure this second proposition is as comforting as it’s supposed to be, but it works for Alice, who interprets it, at the end of the film, to mean that she should become a bold entrepreneur like her father, and sell some sort of unnamed goods to China, which apparently no one has thought of doing. You would have to believe in Wonderland, perhaps, in order to believe in China. Even Alice, though, wonders about having had the same dream over and over for years. Don’t other people have different dreams, she asks her mother. Her mother doesn’t know, presumably because she has no dreams at all.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice is some way from getting married, although that horrible fate does loom in the prefatory poem to Through the Looking-Glass. There we hear that a ‘voice of dread/With bitter tidings laden,/Shall summon to unwelcome bed/ A melancholy maiden.’ The ostensible meaning is just that it’s the girl’s bedtime, but the next lines connect sleep with death (‘We are but older children, dear,/Who fret to find our bedtime near’), and while most children are happy to put off bedtime as long as they can, ‘dread’ is not the usual motive, unless they’re Proust or have been watching too many scary movies. The pile-up here – bedtime, death and marriage – is very impressive, however awful the verse is, and William Empson has a wonderful aside on this subject: ‘I remember believing I should have to die in order to grow up, and thinking the prospect very disagreeable.’ In Burton’s movie the blue hookah-smoking caterpillar grows up in this sense, and reappears in waking life as a blue butterfly.
And the trigger for Alice’s second trip to Wonderland (now called Underland) is a proposal of marriage from the dreadful but socially advantaged Hamish, played by Leo Bill as if he was a decadent cousin of Mr Bean. Alice (Mia Wasikowska, a pretty cool customer throughout) says she’s not ready to make a decision, walks off, and is almost immediately lured down a large hole in the ground by a small and familiar (from Tenniel’s illustrations) white rabbit. Much well-known stuff ensues, involving falling and doors and eating and drinking and shrinking and growing, and for a while we may think this is a film of Alice in Wonderland after all. But only until she gets through one of the doors.
Once through the door we are in Burtonland, all giant plants and tendrils, sometimes proliferating, sometimes scorched and skeletal, a jungle that alternates with a desert. And we are in both of Carroll’s Alice books at once, meeting Tweedledum and Tweedledee from the second volume at the same time as we meet the Cheshire Cat from the first. The two sets of games are conflated too, via playing cards and chess pieces; and although many famous scenes and moments recur, and even pieces of dialogue (croquet with a live flamingo mallet and a live hedgehog as a ball, the Mad Hatter’s unanswerable riddle ‘Why is a raven like a writing-desk?’), the story-line is quite different, in part because Alice has been here before, and that story was last time.
She doesn’t seem to remember it very well, which is odd given the endless recurrence of the dream, but she does have plenty to think about. Here the old elements are recombined and enhanced, as is customary with dreamwork (and even with Dreamworks, although it is not the production company in this case). The Red Queen and the White Queen are enemies, and fight a royal battle at the end; and the Jabberwocky emerges from his poem to provide the basic structure of the plot. In a particularly inventive touch, the ‘frabjous day’ of his defeat becomes a calendar item, Frabjous Day, something like Mother’s Day or Groundhog Day, eagerly awaited because a prediction says that’s when the Jabberwocky will be laid low. As indeed he is, although only after much hesitation on Alice’s part, because she doesn’t like the idea of slaying anything. She realises such feeble scruples won’t do when she sees that no one else can possibly tackle the Jabberwocky, and also understands, through Anne Hathaway’s nicely fussy performance as the White Queen, that a supposedly principled opposition to violence can be merely precious, a wimpish pose.
Meanwhile the movie has begun to revolve around, and be governed by, two figures: the Red Queen and the Mad Hatter. The former, played by Helena Bonham Carter, who seems to have gained a rich new expressive life through representing the forces of evil in the Harry Potter films (not that she didn’t express herself in Burton’s Sweeney Todd), displays such fine-tuned petulance and generally misbehaves with such relish that you see very clearly the spoiled child in the queen and the wannabe queen in the child. The Hatter is Johnny Depp, and if Burton gives him too much time and room to stare into the camera with eyes full of attractive madness, he nevertheless becomes the most human of these dreamed creatures, the one it will cost Alice most to leave behind.
Famous voices hover in the soundtrack, creating a fine aural stroll down memory lane, but also making the film seem a little more conventional than it otherwise might. Alan Rickman is the Caterpillar, Stephen Fry is the Cheshire Cat, Timothy Spall is a bloodhound who seems to have dropped in from another movie. The fun of the thing becomes a little stronger than the threat of the thing, and there is a rather dogged narrative logic to the whole structure that takes us further and further away from Carroll’s craziness and from the feel of a dream. What remains is a sense of Alice’s stolid bravery, a virtue in its own right because it keeps cuteness at bay and makes the story matter. She really is scared, especially of the ultimately friendly Bandersnatch, a vast spotted woolly toy of a dog with a genuinely menacing excess of sharp and irregular teeth, and she would like to believe this is all a dream. And there remains also Burton’s sense of the value of mild disturbance, in minds, in nature and in films, his continuous, discreet suggestion that this beautiful, unlikely, brightly coloured world doesn’t feel like a dream because it isn’t a dream, it’s the location of a movie, and a good deal more real than the pallid place Alice escaped from to come here. This is a film, as Salman Rushdie says of The Wizard of Oz, ‘about the joys of going away, of leaving the greyness and entering the colour’, although the greyness in Alice is purely metaphorical. But maybe I shouldn’t have mentioned The Wizard of Oz, because there are rather too many resemblances – strange, bullied girl leaves home to become a heroine in another landscape – and this Alice begins to look like an amiable remake.
It isn’t quite that, though. The vegetation alone undoes the parallel; and the bright elegance of the final scene in Underland. In Burton’s tangled world a yellow brick road would look like the Autobahn; and when the armies of chessmen (the White Queen’s) and playing cards (the Red Queen’s) clash on a vast chequered board by the sea, with gothic ruins conveniently to hand, we know we’re not in Frank L. Baum any longer. We’re in Bergman’s Seventh Seal, reworked as an echo of a computer game. And we are, curiously, a little closer to Carroll than we were a few moments ago. Death is bound to show up around bedtime.