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Monday, March 22, 2010 5:30 am
Reading the Screen: Will the Real Alice Please Stand Up?
Posted by: David Pitt

If you haven’t seen Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, do it right away. Seriously: turn off your computer and go see the movie. And then come right back, because I have a few things to say about it.

A lot of us fondly remember Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass as children’s stories. But read them again, and you’ll see they’re not. (You can find the full texts of both books online at Project Gutenberg, or — with John Tenniel’s original illustrations – here.) They’re stories for grown-ups, with a central character who is a child. But the satirical references, the punning use of common phrases, the nonsense language — all of that is written for an adult.

The movie, written by Linda Woolverton (check out her credits at the Internet Movie Database), is not a faithful adaptation of the books. It’s sort of a sequel: Alice, a beautiful girl in her late teens, falls through a hole in the earth and winds up in Wonderland. But the place is in ruins, decimated by the tyrannical Red Queen.

Alice’s old friends — the Mad Hatter, the March Hare, you know who they are — tell her she’s been foretold as the savior of Wonderland. All she has to do is steal the Vorpal Sword from the Red Queen and slay the Jabberwocky. Problem is, Alice isn’t sure a) if she’s dreaming, or b) whether, assuming she’s awake, she’s the Alice they’re looking for.

Here’s how John Tenniel, the original Alice illustrator, saw the Jabberwocky:


Now imagine that in full color, and in 3D: pretty scary, and definitely not for small children.

Yes, the movie’s in 3D. Some people, including Roger Ebert, have questioned whether the third dimension is necessary here. I think it is. Burton is a visual filmmaker, and, like James Cameron in Avatar, he uses the third dimension to plunk us down in the environment he’s created. I’m sure the movie would look as good in regular ol’ 2D, but I doubt it would be the same experience.

Burton stays pretty true to Tenniel’s vision of Carroll’s characters. For example, this is how Tenniel saw Tweedledum and Tweedledee: 


This is how Walt Disney saw them, in the 1951 animated movie:


 And this is how Burton sees them:


The movie manages to be familiar and wildly original, all at the same time. It’s got old friends in a new story. It evokes Carroll’s nonsense language, while inventing more nonsense of its own. Visually, it’s stunning — truly like nothing you’ve seen before. If you’re a fan of the Alice books, you’ll love it.  If you’re not familiar with the books, you’ll still love it.



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