Given that my mini-jeremiad against Tim Burton is the most clicked-on thing I've posted on this site by a factor of three, I should say something about his most recent atrocity. I thought of using Jan Svankmajer's characteristically brilliant Alice to underline the tepid, neutered quality of Burton's adaptation, but my industrious A.V. Club editor Keith Phipps beat me to it, which just leaves me and Burton, mano à mano.
I should preface by saying that I'm not one who believes that bad adaptations devalue their source material. Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are on my shelf right where they've always been. It is truly unfortunate that a good many children will be first exposed to Carroll's work — or at least a shoddy knockoff thereof — through Burton's movie, but perhaps a few of them will seek out the source material and realize what an unholy hash he and screenwriter Linda Woolverton have made of it.
To be fair, Burton's Alice in Wonderland isn't a straight adaptation of Carroll's books, so much as an unauthorized sequel. The colorless Mia Wasikowsa (who nonetheless looks quite fetching in Medieval armor) plays Alice as a not-quite-grownup, a 19-year-old woman on the cusp of adulthood who flees a snot-nosed suitor's marriage proposal and tumbles back down the rabbit hole. (And when I say "snot-nosed," I unfortunately mean that literally: among the many unpleasant attributes Burton heaps on the unlucky fellow are a clenched, plugged-up voice and a perpetually wheezy demeanor.) The story has vague outlines ofMulanesque girl power, but this Alice is so bland she has little potential to realize. I missed the petulant brat of Carroll's books, who at least had a personality, however unpleasant. Alice, it seems, has forgotten everything about her previous trip to Wonderland — or, I should say, Underland, since one of the film's conceits is that the "real" home of the White Rabbit, Red Queen et al. differs in numerous small ways from Carroll's account, as if it the details had gotten fudged in the retelling.
There's an idea, or the germ of one, here, but all it really does is give the film license to play fast and loose with the source, which generally means strip-mining it for familiar nuggets while showing a complete lack of interest in understanding it. Svankmajer's is hardly a literal adaptation, but it can at least legitimately claim to be inspired by Carroll's work; Burton's Alice is not inspired at all. One niggling detail that stuck jaggedly in my craw: The scaly monster that Alice must slay to complete her generic heroine's quest is called the Jabberwocky — not, as in the book, the Jabberwock. "Jabberwocky" is the name of the poem. It's a small difference, but that's the point. Perhaps the poem's title is more widely known than the creature itself, but surely it would have caused no more than an instant's confusion to call the damn thing by its proper name. Every time one of the movie's characters discusses "the Jabberwocky," it's a reminder of its craven capitulation to popular expectations. God forbid any man, woman or child should engage their brain while lapping up Burton's CGI goo.
The movie has a few bright spots, mainly Helena Bonham Carter's turn as the top-heavy Red Queen. Rather than whooping "Off with their heads!" at every opportunity, she spits out the line in a rapid-fire torrent, as if prolonging the sentence would only delay her morbid pleasure. But the movie is stilted and lifeless, and the actors are enslaved to Burton's prosaic visuals. You can actually see Wasikowska and Anne Hathaway's limbs tremble as they hold awkward poses to match Burton's storyboards. Lewis Carroll's Alice, and Jan Svankmajer's for that matter, are just fine. The only thing Burton has disgraced is himself.