Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Alice in Burtonland

Tim Burton takes on the children’s classic “Alice in Wonderland” in his long anticipated newest release. Beatrice Jeschek follows Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter in 3D and returns with some thoughts about dreaming for real.

How many times did I fall asleep under my grandma’s noble magnolia tree, when the grass was freshly cut and the light scent of spring gently tickled my nose? I still wish I once had a dream like Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” to turn the aching process of growing up into a spectacle of my own mind.

In 1951, the Disney factory blew some colour into the novel’s fantastic figures. A curvy baby blue caterpillar smokes letters of wisdom into a blond girl’s face. A mean and ugly faced Queen of Hearts tyrannizes her most humble husband. A pink and violet-striped Cheshire Cat is going “poof!” before it answers the question of which way the girl ought to go with the legendary “well, that depends on where you want to get to”. The story is deep. Not even animated happiness could destroy this.

Follow the White Rabbit 

It was just a matter of time until the eccentric Tim Burton, an exceptionally dark and at the same time “help, my paint-box exploded” director, widened the eyes of loyal Alice in Wonderland fans with his expanded version. He always had an artistic technique in revealing the normal in the mad and the mad in the normal – whether it was in “Edward Scissorhands”, “Beetle Juice” or “Big Fish”.

In 3D optic, as there is no way of escaping the cinema trend towards being a funfair of attraction again, a grown up Alice follows the White Rabbit. The cut is clear. A young woman around 20 years old crosses the line between reality and fiction when she flees her Victorian marriage with a rich but dull Lord right into her childish imagination. Here, she finds herself surrounded by mad but friendly figures and nightmares of grown-ups like the Red Queen and her court.

Things have changed since the last time Walt Disney sent her into this odd fantasy world. Although the landscape is a sweetly coloured and a detail-loving homage to the anarchistic-surreal world of both Disney’s classic and Carroll’s artwork, the typical dark scent of a Burton movie is all-present. For this scent he doesn’t need to have the perfect equipment like 3D-cameras as James Cameron in his “Avatar”. It is enough to indulge into the “green and red” post-layered characters, which seem utterly fitting with their edged flatness from time to time in this specially tailored factory of mad minds. 

The Dark Scent 

We can smell the dark scent beguiling in the tragedy that a pitiful woman who cannot accept her otherness rules as the Red Queen by adjusting all creatures to her standards of “normality”. Following the White Rabbit deeper into the plot, the Red Queen simply envies her sister, the White Queen’s beauty and way of being loved. Helena Bonham Carter, the woman at Burton’s side and mother of his children, is just a brilliant embodiment of a selfish creature who forgot to love herself, and who blew up her head - literally.

Like Carter, Johnny Depp can be considered as an inspiration for the very complex character of the Mad Hatter. It is a mechanical detail that his eye colour changes throughout his mood swings, but it blends well with his shattered appearance. “Have I gone mad?” he asks Alice who is holding his head between her hands to keep him from losing it. “I’m afraid so,” she answers. “But I'll tell you a secret”, and here it seems as if Burton speaks right through Alice, in a calm and convincing voice: “All the best people are.” 

Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway as they look in Burton's rabbit hole

“But This is My Dream” 

The naturally beautiful Mia Wasikowska gives Alice a new face. We can search big time for the classic Alice in her blue dress and white pinafore, curious but childishly frightened. With a sullen look and flowing blond hair the older Alice is supposed to slay the dragon Jabberwocky in a knight’s armour to end the Red Queen’s reign once and for all. It shall be her path of glory, but Alice in Burtonland has an identity crisis.

“How can I be the wrong Alice when this is my dream”, she asks when the creatures she once visited as a child doubt that she is the “real Alice”. In order to become who she ought to be, Alice needs to resolve adventurous tasks. After some magical shrinking and growing as part of becoming herself, she beheads the Red Queen’s dragon and fulfills her last act in Wonderland.

"Have I gone mad?"
"I am afraid so - but I'll tell you a secret: All the best people are."

An Alternative to LSD and Psychosis

By all means, Alice can fight her inner demons and return to her real life where she continues the triumphal self-discovery. In not marrying the aristocratic ginger head with a clearly missing fantasy (and missing toothbrush), she can make a point for all soon-to-be empowered girls on earth who fight conventions to follow their dreams and make a career. Burton’s Alice even follows her father’s footsteps in business and sails to China for trading.

This feminist swing can be traced back to screenplay writer Linda Woolverton who was part of yet another Disney movie with a female hero, Mulan in 1998.
Moreover it asks the critical question: How can we keep our childish imagination without turning into a child again?

They say that pure creativity goes hand in hand with mind-blowers of any kind (alcohol as the most commonly accepted). However, if we follow our dreams in real life, there is no need for fake companions like envy or drugs. It doesn’t need to be China (the exotic stereotype). It can be a wish that has never been touched, because it was buried under real life experience. But it needs to come from deep within.

Burton spreads his message all over the screen. It sticks on his shots, corny like an overdose of honey, but it is also the shining key to our very own Wonderland. (If that doesn’t help we can practice first and think of as many as six impossible things before breakfast.)

Now, who wants to wake up and use the key?

Trailer: Alice in Wonderland by Tim Burton:

(All images: Copyright Disney 2010)

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