Sunday, March 7, 2010

'Alice' vs. 'Alice': A Wonderland Smackdown

I caught the midnight showing of "Alice in Wonderland" Thursday night and, like many Disney fans, immediately started comparing Tim Burton's somewhat dark vision of Lewis Carroll's classic tale with the 1951 animated film. There were some revisionist improvements that Burton hit upon (the coming-of-age, sword and sorcery storyline was not one of them), but mostly it reminded me how great the story and characters were in the Disney original. So here, in a totally arbitrary head-to-head character comparison where I decide what matters and what doesn't, I give you Burton Alice vs. Animated Alice. Let's see who wins.

WARNING: Spoilers ahead!

Alice - Alice in WonderlandAlice - The Alices in both films are headstrong girls escaping their humdrum everyday lives. Animated Alice deals with the madness of Wonderland with peevish impatience--she just wants to go home and these mad people won't let her. Burton Alice is pursuing her destiny, whether she wants to or not, and ultimately faces her fears while wielding a mean vorpal blade. Animated Alice, on the other hand, wouldn't be caught dead in a suit of armor. Kathryn Beaumont charmingly voiced the more iconic Animated Alice, but Mia Wasikowska creates an Alice that overcomes more adversity, takes down the Red Queen and kicks Wonderland (oops, Underland) ass.
Winner: Burton Alice.

Queen of Hearts - Alice in WonderlandThe Queen of Hearts - Make no mistake, Burton Alice may call her the Red Queen (from "Through the Looking Glass"), but she is unquestionably the Queen of Hearts from "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland." Both the Animated and Burton Queens subscribe to the "off with their heads" school of conflict management, with the Animated Queen coming across as a deliciously psychotic bully. But, Helena Bonham Carter takes the Burton Queen an extra step, turning her into a petulant child who sends a new head into the moat every time she has a tantrum. She even offed the King, crown and all. Let's see the Animated Queen try that one.
Winner: Burton Queen, by a head.

The Mad Hatter - Alice in WonderlandThe Mad Hatter - "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" Neither Mad Hatter knows or tells, and that's where the similarities end in two distinctly different character interpretations. Ed Wynn voiced a broadly comic--and more entertaining--Animated Hatter much in the same manner as he portrayed the majority of his live action characters in radio, movies and TV (see Mary Poppins' Uncle Albert if you have any doubt). Johnny Depp plays an emotionally complex Hatter in Burton's version with mixed results. When he's manic, he absolutely shines. When he becomes thoughtful and fights the good fight, he doesn't ring true. No self-respecting Hatter would ever take sides in a conflict at the expense of an unbirthday present or a good cup of tea.
Winner: Don't let's be silly! Animated Hatter.

The March Hare - Alice in WonderlandThe March Hare - Now here's a character that appreciates a good cup of tea regardless of the movie. Jittery, over the top, and, well, just plain mad, the March Hare is delightfully frenetic in both movie versions. You just have to decide whether you prefer a Scottish brogue (Paul Whitehouse in Burton's version) or a touch of crazy Italian (Jerry Colonna's animated version).
Winner: Call it a draw . . . by a hare.


The Dormouse - Alice in WonderlandThe Dormouse - Lewis Carroll said he was just sleepy. I always thought he was a bit drunk in the animated version. Tim Burton made him a female--and pretty feisty at that. So, which movie Dormouse wins? Well, both can recite "Twinkle, twinkle, little bat" with great aplomb, but the Burton Dormouse gets the nod because of her can-do spirit and her nimble ability with a sewing needle--or was it a hatpin? Either way, OUCH!
Winner: Burton Dormouse, with an eyeball to spare.

The White Rabbit - Alice in WonderlandThe White Rabbit - What could a rabbit possibly be late for? In the animated version, it seems just about everything, but particularly the Queen's croquet match. For Burton, it's Alice who's late and the rabbit is just there to keep her on schedule for her Frabjous Day date with destiny. That's not nearly as interesting as the harried, put-upon, no-time-to-say-hello-goodbye-I'm-late cartoon rabbit (voiced to nervous perfection by Bill Thompson). Bonus points for having your house overrun by Gigantor Alice and nearly burned down. Mary Ann!!!
Winner: Animated Rabbit.

The Caterpillar - Alice in Wonderland The Caterpillar - The Animated Caterpillar stays truer to Carroll's text: An impatient schoolmaster answering questions with questions and demanding absurd recitations. The Burton Caterpillar goes in a different direction and is the best revisionist take on any of the Alice characters. He's a prickly guru, a testy blue Yoda with the gravitas (courtesy of Alan Rickman) to ask, "Who are you?" and have it mean something. His gradual morphing into a butterfly serves as the perfect, albeit obvious, metaphor for Alice's own personal transformation. Still, the Animated Caterpillar does teach Alice how to properly consume a magic mushroom. How's THAT for a metaphor?
Winner: Animated Caterpillar, for every child of the 60s who listened to Jefferson Airplane.

The Cheshire Cat - Alice in WonderlandThe Cheshire Cat - Clever, devious and as cool as the other side of the pillow, the Cheshire Cat is my favorite Alice character. In Burton's hands, he ultimately becomes a hero, helping save the Hatter from the executioner's ax and returning the royal crown of Underland to its rightful owner. I like my grinning kitties more subversive, however, so props to the Animated Cat for always following his own agenda for his own amusement. Watching him mock the Queen and taunt Alice at the same time is an evil guilty pleasure, especially for those of us who aren't all there.
Winner: Animated Cat.


Tweedledum and Tweedledee - Alice in WonderlandTweedledum and Tweedledee - The Tweedles in Burton's Wonderland are not terribly bright, but they are earnest, well-meaning and brave. They're kind of cute and cuddly, too. The Animated Tweedles are also not terribly bright, but they are...well...they're pretty annoying, actually. They do spin a good "Walrus and the Carpenter" tale, however. This time, though, cute and cuddly wins over annoying. That's manners.
Winner: Burton Tweedles.

Talking Flowers - Alice in WonderlandThe Talking Flowers - No contest here. The Animated Flowers talk, sing and banish Alice for being a common weed--and they do it all in a golden afternoon. By comparison, Burton's Flowers are given precious little to do, other than to question whether Alice is the real Alice they're looking for. A terrible waste of floral finery.
Winner: Animated Flowers, petals and stems above the rest.

While they each have their qualities, neither movie is perfect. Animated Alice suffers from trying too hard to be like Carroll's book, a deliberately episodic story that, for all its sublime silliness, has never translated well to film. Alice just wanders from mad character to mad character, waiting to wake up. Disney's original has plenty of inspired scenes, the mad tea party among them, but never a cohesive beginning, middle and end. Tim Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton tried to get around this by introducing an entirely new story, but sadly settled into a routine CG-heavy adventure fantasy right out of Hogwarts and Narnia that misses most of their charms and all of their originality.

Given the choice, I'll take Animated Alice anytime. 'Tis brillig!

Final Score: Animated Alice 5 1/2, Burton Alice 4 1/2.


  1. I pretty much agree, both entertaining. Did you or anyone else notice any hidden mickey's? I wasn't even looking when I noticed one over the shoulder of the Red Queen. Notice on the right side of the screen when the Queen is on the balcony. the door knob behind her is a golden classic Mickey !

  2. I'll have to give it a look topdad. I'm going with friends tomorrow. Yes, I'm seeing it again--not entirely by choice lol.