Tim Burton: Spuriouser and Spuriouser
by Dan Wohl
(Note: contains mild spoilers of Alice in Wonderland (2010))
Back around the period in which I was Marilyn Manson for three consecutive Halloweens, I used to dream about a dark, weird film version of Alice in Wonderland. I pictured a gray-tinged poster with a vacantly-staring Alice and a real-looking flamingo riffing on this illustration in the Lewis Carroll book. I foresaw a trailer that built to a climax before the soundtrack went silent, a quick zoom went to a closeup of an evil-version-of-Cate-Blanchett-in-Elizabeth-like Queen of Hearts and she growled, “off with her head!” I imagined a film that would retain the genius of Carroll’s world while injecting the character depth and robust plot his stories lacked.
But that’s not what I got. Instead I got Tim Burton’s cinematic brain aneurysm called Alice in Wonderland.
The plot that Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton came up with leads Alice to defeat the Jabberwocky, which is all well and good and reminiscent of the climax of the computer game American McGee’s Alice, one of the biggest “twisted Wonderland” influences on my adolescent mind. But things unraveled for me quickly once we learned exactly why Burton’s Alice has to slay the Jabberwock. Apparently, a scroll (don’t ask where it came from) foretells that Alice will do so on a day called… “The Frabjous Day.”
Clearly you’re meant to pat yourself on the back in you recognize the phrase from the Carroll poem:
“And hast thou slain the Jabberwock?
Come to my arms, my beamish boy!
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!”
He chortled in his joy.
The brilliance of the poem Jabberwocky is the way it proves that because of taken-for-granted linguistic norms, even nonsense words can make perfect sense. Burton and Woolverton don’t get it. The father’s happy exclamation—O frabjous day!— works only in context. If you take it out of its place to somewhere where you aren’t already expecting words like “fabulous” or “joyous,” it’s rendered meaningless, and that’s exactly the point.
It’s a minor point, but I think it’s a perfect representation of Burton’s massive failure in this film, and I’d say, most of his career. Transforming a context-reliant whimsical phrase into a solemn proper noun is exactly the sort of style-above-substance-at-all-costs move that Burton has displayed for a long time. And the worst part is, his style choices seem to be getting worse and worse.
Take the characters in the Alice in Wonderland. Calling them one-note would, for some of them, overstate by one how many notes they’re given. Anne Hathaway’s White Queen does nothing the entire film. I might have completely forgotten Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts except for how revolting his real-head-digital-body pastiche was. And I’m not sure if I have ever had the displeasure of experiencing a film character as lacking in humanity as Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter.
Look at him. He looks like a combination of Madonna and Tim Curry in It wearing the Joker’s suit and the Cat in the Hat’s tie. And what do we know of his character? He confirms that he’s a hatter. It seems fair to say he’s mad. For some reason his accent jumps from one end of Great Britain to the other and back. And…what else? He isn’t a film character; he’s a piece of expressionist art.
Take a look, if you will, at the first minute or so of the video for Avril Lavigne’s tie-in song, “Alice,” directed by Dave Meyers. It might not be a masterpiece, but I think Meyers has exactly the right idea where Burton doesn’t: A live action remake/sequel to Disney’s original Alice in Wonderland should be more, probably much more, unsettlingly real than a cartoon from the ’50s, not less. Especially when its director accepts the mantle of Hollywood’s go-to “goth” director.
Allow me to make a bold statement: I think Tim Burton is the worst thing to happen to goth culture. Ever. No one is more responsible for its Hot Topicization. In its classic form, goth ideology was about romanticism, artistic intellectualism, and an awareness of the earthly, supernatural and existential horrors humanity finds itself facing. Burton’s work hasn’t seriously explored any of this since what I’d say are his two best films, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood. Since then, he’s had one success (Sweeney Todd) and a slew of high-profile adaptations that were either disappointing (Sleepy Hollow) or catastrophic (Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Alice in Wonderland).
Burton’s rule of making only adaptations of previous work is the reason that I think he’s a corrosive cultural force rather than merely a poor director. Because of his role as THE goth director, he gobbles up most of the remake projects flagged as waiting for a dark, twisted spin, and they end up instead with Burton’s immature drivel when other directors might have done something legitimately interesting with them.
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory is, aside from Alice, the other perfect example for me. Everyone knows the 1971 original has its tremendously disturbing moments. It’s safe to say that the horrifying boat ride scene is the only G-rated movie sequence to inspire a Marilyn Manson video. Many would argue that a remake was unnecessary, but an entire film more in the vein of the boat ride did seem appealing. But Burton’s 2005 version somehow delivered considerably less dark weirdness, or substance at all; it delivered Charlie living in a house designed by Dr. Seuss and a Willy Wonka who recoils from human contact in one scene and asks for high fives in the next.
That kind of contradiction in internal logic is one more thing endemic in Burton’s films. Look at Depp’s Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow; in one scene he’s a sniveling scaredy-cat terrified of a spider and in the next he’s a suave detective who orders everyone around.
To go back to Alice for a moment: At the beginning of the film, Alice talks to a crazy old aunt of hers who talks about a prince coming to marry her. Then Alice falls down the rabbit hole into a place where flowers talk, caterpillars smoke hookah and fish breathe air and stand erect on their tails. In a big climactic moment, Alice is informed beyond any doubt that Wonderland is real, not a dream. Fair enough, I guess. But then when she returns to our Earth, she is suddenly imbued with wisdom that she imparts via one-sentence morsels of advice to each member of her family. And what does she say to her aunt? “There is no prince. You really need to talk to someone about these delusions.”
The stunning nonsensicality of this made me want to take a vorpal sword to my ears. Maybe I need to talk to someone about my delusions that the general public will one day agree with me that Burton is not a good director. If it ever happened, that would be, for me, quite the frabjous day.