Zombos Says: Good (but not so Frabjous)
Once upon a time, mercury was used in the making of hats. It
affected the nervous systems
of hatters, causing them to go bonkers with mood swings and flights of fancy and trembling distress and, well, to become as mad as a hatter. Which is all well and good to explain the Mad Hatter's unpredictable behavior in Wonderland--or is it Underland?--but what about Tim Burton? He never ever is really ever quite the same, being the same as before, I mean, nor all grown up now will he be again, I'm afraid.
"Look, my good man, I'm going to croak by the time you get to that review. Time to jam the jelly and all that."
I looked around. I was walking in the garden when a low voice, seeming to come from the daffodils, interrupted my reverie. My reveries are often interrupted, but usually by Zombos, not voices coming from daffodils. The flowers had bloomed unusually early this year.
"Down here, and mind your big feet."
I looked down. A toad, dressed in a Harris Tweed suit and driving a very Mini Convertible Cooper, blew puffs of smoke from a long cigar as he looked up at me. He raced the engine, allowing the car to jump forward every now and then. I seem to have a penchant for meeting odd creatures that smoke long cigars and talk when they really should not be able to. Besides, don't they know smoking isn't healthy?
"I beg your pardon?" I said, for want of anything better to say.
"Your review. You know, of Alice in Wonderland. Burton and Woolverton want to do me next."
"I...beg your pardon?" I said, repeating myself. A bad habit, to be sure, but I can't help it.
The toad took a quick puff, shifted the car into park, and hopped up on the front seat. He took the cigar out of his mouth and opened his arms wide. His bright green complexion and brown tweed clothes contrasted quite colorfully against the yellow and white of the daffodils.
"Don't you recognize me?" he asked, incredulous. "It's me, Mr. Toad. Your bestest buddy from childhood. Dear oh dear, talk about the wind in the willows; more like you've got wind blowing round in that noggin of yours."
I thought for a moment. "You're Mr. Toad? From Toad Hall?" I said, not at all sure because my bestest buddy from childhood was The Little Prince as I best recalled.
"Kaching! A winner every time!"
"But, I don't understand. Oh...wait a minute, this is silly. I can't be talking to Mr. Toad from Toad Hall. I must have dozed off and...and I'm dreaming...yes. Next I'll be seeing the White Rabbit running by, telling me to hurry up and write my review, too."
"No, you won't," said Mr. Toad. "That groundskeeper of yours, Cretinous—"
"You mean Pretorius," I corrected him.
"Yes, whatever. Look, anyway, he ran over the White Rabbit with his Mini Moke. Blind as a bat that man is. Last time I saw poor old Bre'er his lifeless legs were dangling off the kitchen table. Looks like you're having rabbit stew for dinner.
"That's simply not possible," I said with certainty. "I hate rabbit stew."
"Suit yourself. But you must get to that review, and until you do, I'm not budging one inch nor one ounce. Been slacking off you have, and I'll have none of it when serious blogging work's to be done." Mr. Toad folded his long arms across his plaid vest and puffed away at his cigar.
"Look," I said, "the movie's not even horror. Why do you expect me to—"
"Not horror! Not horror he says! Then what do you call that ghastly dance the Mad Hatter does on Frabjous Day?" said Mr. Toad.
"Well, yes, now that you bring it up, it was pretty terrifying to watch."
"And what about Bandersnatch's eye getting plucked right out of its socket?" added Mr. Toad to strengthen his argument.
"Hmm...true. Definitely a horror-gimmicky kind of effect. But there was no blood or stringy bits so I'm not sure you can—"
"Splitting hairs are we?" Mr. Toad folded his arms tighter and glared at me.
A minute passed by in silence.
"I suppose I'm not dreaming."
"Correct, sir." Mr. Toad continued glaring. He tapped the long ash at the end of his cigar onto the daffodils.
Another minute passed in silence.
I sighed. "All right, then. I guess I'm reviewing Alice In Wonderland."
"Yippee!" said Mr. Toad. "Callooh! Callay!" He danced round the car seat with delight.
"Better watch your—"
I tried to warn him, but it was too late. His large left shoe kicked the gearshift into drive, and his equally large right one slipped off the front seat and wedged itself over the gas pedal and under the brake. The car sped out of sight with him croaking in terror and frantically grabbing at the steering wheel. I didn't see the crash, but it did make quite a crunching noise. I couldn't tell if the plume of smoke rising into the air was coming from his cigar or the wreck. After thinking it over for a few minutes, I decided to investigate, although doing so went against my better judgment, given the circumstances. As I walked toward the plume of smoke, Pretorius' yellow Mini Moke drove past. I saw Chef Machiavelli riding in the back seat.
"It's rabbit stew and frog's legs tonight!" yelled Pretorius. Chef Machiavelli smiled at me as they rounded the bed of daffodils and headed toward the garage.
Now this is just not right, I thought to myself. I didn't like frog's legs, either.
Upon observing the now grown up Alice, the laconic Blue Caterpillar, Absolem (voiced by Alan Rickman), rudely tells her she's lost much of her muchness. So has Tim Burton, it seems, in bringing his visual feast of Squire and Knave (Crispin Glover), big-headed and right-headed Queens, and a millinery Joker to moribund life; and strife, as the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) rules Wonderland with an iron scepter, and her pet Jabberwocky (voiced by Christopher Lee) broils the landscape along with those slithy toves.
Eschewing the brillig and mimsy, Alice In Wonderland picks up years after the young Alice (Mia Wasikowska) stumbled down the rabbit hole. At 19 she is famished from lack of sleep and lack of independence. Avoiding betrothal to a popinjay Duke (Leo Bill), she flees the unexpected engagement party to follow that worrisome White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) once more to Wonderland; or should I say Underland. Silly Alice apparently got the name all mixed up after her first visit; it isn't Wonderland at all, just Underland. Under all of us, I take it, but especially underneath Alice's thoughts and dreams.
Linda Woolverton's story is neither a remake, undermake, overmake, or reimagining: it simply sits among the borogoves with hat firmly in Johnny Depp's hands as the Mad Hatter. Only this time he's not all that mad, but still quite colorful in a Kabuki-Creole sort of way with his Bozo-frizzy hair, pouting white face, and kaleidoscopic bow tie. And he's quite the dancer, too, with his unnatural and illogical futterwacking after the climactic battle, to celebrate Frabjous Day. There's more than meets the brow with this hatter, I am sure of it. It's a shame we don't get a chance to see it. This could have been quite the road trip movie with Alice and the Mad Hatter hitting those weird Wonderland-now-Underland trails. Instead, we get a Happy Kids Meal-styled futterwacking Mad Hatter, and a conventional wicked-Queen-needs-to-be-usurped modus operandi, complete with the usual cryptic scroll of destiny laying it all out in pictograms. And everyone waits for Alice to do the job with Vorpal Sword in hand, clothed in shining armor fitting her like a glove.
One, two! One, two! And through and through
The vorpal blade went snicker-snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
While the Vorpal Sword and evil Jabberwocky follow Lewis Carroll's nonsense, Woolverton and Burton also follow a familiar trail of Walt Disneyisms, bringing a Narnian-like battle to the forefront of their girl-to-woman-to-independence growth in Alice. Although Burton's dark visual palette infuses the nonsense, Woolverton's script follows the conventions, leaving both tepid, much like the bickering between Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas). The irreconcilable characters inhabiting Underland have no wonder in them, leaving Alice to decide alone whether to fight the Jabberwocky to free them all, and by doing so, free herself to pursue her own destiny in Aboveland, or succumb to her uncertainty and a loveless, pointless marriage.
Through all this, Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter hints at sadness, madness, and a peculiar life story begging to be told. He dances instead.
And why is the Red Queen so mean? Comfy pigs for her feet and screaming "Off with their heads!" does not reveal why she desires to rule Underland so wickedly. But rule she must, so she sends the elongated Knave of Hearts to do her dirty work.
All of this is weird to a point, but stays conventionally so, which is unusual for Tim Burton. He weighs seriousness in every scene, ignoring Carroll's underlying insouciance, and the culminating battle as the armies of Red and White Queens clash on a chessboard-battlefield while Alice fights the dragon-like Jabberwocky for Underland becomes one of many such battles fought in many such movies.
How a darkly whimsical and maniacally nonsensical work from Lewis Carroll can lead to such a conventionally safe movie like Alice In Wonderland makes me wonder much, indeed.
You can follow this conversation by subscribing to the comment feed for this post.