All the Best People Are Mad: The brilliance of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland

When Disney began remaking most of its classic animated films as live-action, there was some skepticism about how it would go. In recent months, viewers have begun to tire of seeing their classics being turned into live-action remakes because of the blatant similarities to their cartoon predecessors. At the start of this trend, the movies were taking unique perspectives on their fairytales. For the remake of Alice in Wonderland, Disney got notorious director Tim Burton to direct what would become a unique fairytale with a brave message. 

For his take on the character, we meet Alice, played by Mia Wasikowska, at the age of 19, and she is proposed to by Hamish, her boyfriend. While many have told her to just go along with it, she knows in her heart of hearts that Hamish is not the right person she is meant to be with. Mere moments after he proposes to her, she sees the White Rabbit and follows him back to Wonderland. Once there, she is met by the White Rabbit (whose name is McTwisp), Tweedledee, Tweedledum, and a dormouse named Mallymkum. 

The main characters of Alice in Wonderland in a mushroom-filled field

She is taken to Absolem, a blue caterpillar, who tells her she is hardly the Alice they are looking for. Through a series of events, she finds herself in the palace of the Red Queen who is feared by many due to her erratic behavior. Alice passes herself as a giant named “Um”. She helps unite the captured creatures and people of Wonderland against the Red Queen. After the Red Queen’s lover and knight, Sting, is found hitting on Um/Alice, the Queen orders that her head is cut off. Alice evades capture after getting the Vorpal Sword, but Mallymkum reveals Alice’s identity to Sting by accident. 

Alice is able to escape from the Red Queen’s castle on the Bandersnatch, a large beast that maimed Alice’s arm earlier in the film. She goes to the castle of the White Queen where she gives the Queen the Vorpal Sword, used to slay the Jabberwocky on the Frabjous Day. The other creatures and people of Wonderland who have been held prisoner in the Red Queen’s castle revolt during the failed execution of the Mad Hatter, played by Johnny Depp. The movie concludes with Alice doing battle against the Jabberwocky and successfully slaying it. The Red Queen and Sting are forced to live in isolation without any paying them a kindness until the end of Wonderland. 

Like most of Burton’s films, the tone is quite darker than that of the 1951 animated film. His use of shadow and contrast puts the 200-year-old fairytale in a new light. Specific characters in the film, such as the Mad Hatter, make quite the impression too. Johnny Depp’s subtle switches between lighthearted and blinding rage are an impressive show of the actor’s range. And who could forget the Hatter’s famous Futterwacken at the end of the film? 

What separates the film from its predecessors is that there is some depth to each character in the story. This can be shown primarily in the role of Mallymkum.  In most adaptations, the dormouse is usually just sleeping in a teapot throughout the scenes when Alice is introduced to the March Hare and the Mad Hatter. However, in this film, Mallymkum is a feisty mouse who is a sergeant in the uprising against the Red Queen. She plays a hearty role in the film and she has an expanded impact on the storyline. 

For this film, the Queens, both Red and White, present unique styles about them. The Red Queen is shown to strike the same fear into the hearts of her servants as the Red Queens/Queen of Hearts before her. Helena Bonham Carter’s interpretation of the character is that of a ruthless ruler who is more than willing to eliminate those in her path to remain in power. However, that’s just the change in this film, that there is a power struggle. The White Queen, played by Anne Hathaway, portrays a harmless version of the White Queen who lives up to the symbolism of her color. Her portrayal of the White Queen demonstrates an interesting style of character. Though she is not willing to harm any living creature, she is willing to see a creature like the Jabberwocky vanquished for the betterment of Wonderland.

Another unique part of the film is the message regarding making choices for yourself. Sure, there are plenty of times when Disney has been known to pile on the saccharine sweetness of a message, but this movie doesn’t show that until the last possible second. The message also deals with self-discovery and acceptance, primarily seen through Alice’s journey. She goes from being “hardly Alice”, according to Absolem, to being “Alice at last” before Absolem becomes a butterfly. It’s a unique journey that she undertakes considering she finds who she wants to be and knows her future. 

This then comes to the heroine of the film, Alice. Like most adaptations, Alice is not one for letting others squash her active imagination. But, she does try to let people dictate her thoughts. She keeps telling herself throughout the film that it’s all just a dream, only for Absolem to reveal to her she had been there before, giving it the name Wonderland. The journey that Alice has to go on is unique in that it ends with her becoming an apprentice for the company her deceased father helped establish. She discovers the joy in becoming her own person instead of being someone’s wife. 

Alice prepares to do battle against the Jabberwocky with the Vorpal Sword.

Much of Burton’s style choices mirror those of his previous films, he uses plenty of dark colors which are brilliant in contrast to the light. When Burton does use light colors, he primarily sticks to pastels, which serve as a stark contrast to the dialogue. In the opening scene where Hamish proposes to Alice, many of the partygoers are wearing bright colors despite Alice being uncomfortable with the idea of getting engaged. The Mad Hatter wears brightly color clothing, but those can often contrast with those moments his rage against the Red Queen is unleashed. 

Burton’s distinctive style separates this film from the many live-action adaptations that succeeded it. Even though the film’s sequel didn’t fare as well as this movie, Alice in Wonderland is a triumph in Tim Burton’s career.

Written by Edwin J. Viera

I live in a pocket of New York's Finger Lakes Region called Ithaca. I am a reporter for the Ithaca Times and an avid player of Pokemon Go when I'm not out reporting. I have an affinity for sitcoms and love to laugh out loud, even when a show is pretty bad. Cause sometimes, you just gotta laugh.

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