Friday, 5 March 2010


For several days, last week, it was a case of "Will you, Won't you, Will you, Won't you, Will you" be able to see Disney's release of Tim Burton's film, Alice in Wonderland, in 3D at an Odeon cinema near you.

The dispute raged over Disney's intention to reduce the time between the film's release and its being issued on DVD from the conventional 17 weeks to a mere 12 weeks. For the cinema chains, who have been investing millions in new projection equipment to screen 3D films, this was unacceptable because films with huge appeal that might play longer in theatres would be threatened by early 'Coming soon on DVD' posters.

Disney, like other studios, are aware that DVD sales fell last year by 10% and want to rejuvenate the home entertainment part of their business (up until now the most lucrative) by getting DVDs of films out into the marketplace while there is still public awareness of titles and in the (probably vain) hope of preventing some of the piracy currently eating into their revenue.

The face-off was dramatic and although finally resolved (on terms that neither party are willing to divulge) it has, ultimately, probably only succeeded in boosting the already considerable hype about the latest Burton movie!

Tim Burton's revisionist take on Britain's seminal children's classic is the latest in a LONG line of interpretations (rarely beautiful, often bizarre, sometimes beastly and frequently bland) that demonstrate just how swiftly and completely Carroll's unorthodox Victorian imagination touched a universal consciousness. Alice, her dream-world, the characters she met there and the conversations she had quickly became - and have remained - part of international popular culture.

The first film version, silent and running for 8 minutes, was made in 1903 - just five years after Carroll's death - by British film pioneer, Cecil Hepworth...

Walt Disney had a long fascination with Carroll's book and one of his earliest (pre-Mickey Mouse) series was 'Alice in Cartoonland', featuring a live-action child in an animated world. None of the familiar Carroll characters appeared but the fact that the pilot for the series was entitled Alice's Wonderland tells you the source of Disney's inspiration.

As soon as the possibility of making animated features became a reality, Disney was itching to put Alice on film and would have done so sooner had he not been pipped to the post in 1933 by Paramount Pictures who produced the first of a long-line of star-laden Alices. Tim Burton - as I hardly need remind you - has a cast led by Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Michael Sheen and Sir Christopher Lee. Back in 1933, Paramount trotted out W C Fields, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Edward Everett Horton, Edna May Oliver and a dozen others.

Disney bided his time and, in 1936, made-do with a Carroll-inspired Mickey Mouse short called Thru the Mirror...

Eventually, in 1951, Disney got to take us on that full-length animated expedition he'd been envisaging for two decades.

Here's the trailer...

Walt's excursion into Wonderland wasn't the success he had hoped for: perhaps because it lacked the sentimental, romantic appeal of the studio's established line in Prince-and-Princess fairy-tales and because it outraged purists critics - especially in the UK.

Now, in a more culturally-tolerant era, Disney is back in a Wonderland of sorts in company with Mr Burton, cinema's tirelessly inventive enfant terrible...

So, what are we to make of this film which opens today?

Well, first it has to be said - probably sooner rather than later - that this is not Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, or a version of it, or a sequel to it. It is a Burtonesque phantasmagoria that trips the dark fantastic in the way only Mr B can do!

The names of many of characters are the same or similar to the well-known denizens of Wonderland and Looking-glass-world, but they are their own selves and the Alice who blunders into their realm is, some of the residents think, the Wrong Alice!

In fact, things are even topsy-turvyier than when Carroll pitched the first Alice down the rabbit-hole 145 years ago, since the place itself turns out to be not Wonderland but Underland!

Once all that is understood, you'll have no trouble with the Queen of Hearts morphing with the Red Queen and being at war with the White Queen or the story's New Alice (aged 19), clad in white armour, riding forth like Joan of Arc to slay the Jabberwocky (sic) with the vorpal sword that the Red Queen has kept locked in the courtyard kennel of the Bandersnatch...

I could go on, but you get the drift and any further revelations can only spoil the surprises!

Wonderlander's Tea-Party
However, you can hear more of my thoughts on the new Alice on BBC Radio 2's Arts Show tonight at around 10:30 pm, when presenter, Claudia Winkleman, will be playing an interview I had with Tim Burton and, afterwards, talking with me about the film

And, if you miss it you can catch the broadcast for the next seven days on BBC iPlayer.


Andy J. Latham said...

Do you ever find that you are uncomfortable with additions to established stories at first, but then are more accepting of it the more variations you see? The thought of a new film in, say, the Back to the Future series would make me very unhappy as those films are wonderful in my eyes. However if on the other hand a bad James Bond film is made, it doesn't ruin the whole series because you accept that there are going to be duff ones.

Then you get even more special cases like Batman where the stories and characters can be deformed hugely and still be acceptable.

Anyway I suppose I'm asking if, as a fan of the original story of Alice, you feel a certain apprehension about a new film, or do you feel that there have been enough poor adaptations to mean it doesn't matter if this new one is good or not?

Suzanne said...

I have great admiration for Tim Burton's work and was really looking forward to seeing this film, until I heard that it was in 3D. I have serious misgivings about 3D. However, Belgium are continuing to boycot "Alice", so I don't if I shall be able (or willing) to see it now. I often find that I buy DVD's of major releases a very long time after they're released... when the hullaballoo and the prices have died down!
tedels: the Flemish word for animated playing-cards

Brian Sibley said...

ANDY - Good question! I have seen so many Alice's, live-action and animated: just about everything from a porno version (billed as "a bedtime story NOT for children") to Hana-Barbera's The New Alice in Wonderland, or What's a Nice Girl like you Doing in a Place Like This? with Fred Flintstone and Barney Rubble as the two ends of the Caterpillar, that nothing now can take me by surprise!

Great stories are never 'damaged' by film versions (good, bad or ugly); the book always remains the book. I am ceaselessly fascinated by what experiments Carroll inspires in artists, writers and filmmakers. There's only one thing I can't forgive is if they turn it into something dull!

SUZANNE - Yes, I read that Belgium were still boycotting the film.

The 3D isn't that intrusive: more creating an atmosphere than poking your eye out - although, during the tea-party, the March Hare does lob a cup out of the screen, so folks need to be ready to duck!

Ian said...

I'm looking forward to seeing this at the IMAX tomorrow I guess, but already feeling somewhat set against it because of the remorseless hype - especially the endless trailers masquerading as "news" on the BBC. Have they learnt nothing from the recent U2 fiasco (where they were rapped over the knuckles for endlessly promoting the group, pretending it was "news").

Around the time of the UK premier it received a report on the 6 o'clock news, with free promotional clips. The next day it featured again, in an even longer piece of free publicity and trailer showing from the BBC on their London News programme.

Then "The One Show" was pretty much a half hour free advertisement for the film, with specially recorded intro and clips throughout the show.

Anybody remember when "news" was just that - "news"! Not endless free advertising for a film company?

Brian Sibley said...

You are right to fear the hype, Ian! I find it totally distorts my response to things. Happily, I saw it before the hype turned into a gushing geyser of freebie-publicity.

To anyone going I would say: park just about anything you know (or think you know) about Alice in Wonderland at the door and just enjoy Mr Burton tripping out on whatever he keeps in that DRINK ME bottle!

Andy J. Latham said...

I suppose ultimately a sequel/remake of a film or book can only really spoil the original if it screated by the original creator. Star Wars is a sore point for a lot of people because Lucas himself was responsible for the new films. However no amount of awful sequels can taint Jaws unless Spielberg himself was to have another bash!

Anonymous said...

Of course, you'd have to have a good movie in order to stop piracy.

Elliot Cowan said...

My thoughts on the new Alice film are that it's easily Burton's worst, most awful film.
I think it stinks pretty much from beginning to end.