It is almost a decade ago now. The anorexic, pierced Cheshire cat greeted me with his crooked smile, and I was instantly hooked. American McGee’s twisted and dark (but still humorous and wondrous) vision of Alice in Wonderland spoke to me like few other games had done. It wasn’t the admittedly bland gameplay that appealed to me, but the experience of exploring its grim and magical environments.
It felt as if game director American McGee stepped unto the territory of movie director Tim Burton, borrowing some of his visual language and his habit of creating dark and sinister fairytales. When I heard that Burton was directing a new Alice in Wonderland feature, it felt like a natural step for both Burton and Alice. Lewis Carrol’s old tale had already proven to provide a perfect setting for all things Burtonesque.
Last friday was the Norwegian premiere of the movie. A mediocre trailer had dampened my expectations, but I left the cinema disappointed nonetheless. While it had rich environments and fun character designs, it lacked the sense of wonder that is so integral to the story. It carried the elements of psychadelic surrealism that Wonderland is famous for, but they felt bland, uninteresting and ultimately generic. I longed for the darkness that Burton’s brush normally is drenched with.
Generic is a keyword for this movie. The characters were almost all unengaging, with the expection of The Mad Hatter. Johnny Depp’s characterization and the character’s backstory made the Hatter interesting and entertaining, in stark contrast to the weak portrayal of Alice. Yet, the biggest problem with the movie is the story. Tim Burton has said that he was unable to connect emotionally with the original story. His unfortunate solution was to paste a generic fantasy tale about good versus evil, a magical sword and a youngling embracing her destiny of becoming a brave warrior. Clichés piled on top of each other. Clichés that have no place in the Underworld.
When we in the third act see Alice clad in armor fighting a dragon, it is quite clear how deep Burton’s disconnect with the original story was. He must never have truly understood what made it special, or the potential of its surrealism. I could go on to discuss how if a director doesn’t know how to approach a source material then he better refrain from adapting it – but I think I will let the Cheshire cat speak in my place:
One day Alice came to a fork in the road and saw a Cheshire cat in a tree. “Which road do I take?” she asked. “Where do you want to go?” was his response. “I don’t know,” Alice answered. “Then,” said the cat, “it doesn’t matter.”