Alice In Wonderland review: Disney and the Opium Wars

Rather belatedly, I’m posting a review of Tim Burton’s 3D movie adaptation of Alice In Wonderland. Being a sucker for the technology (especially now that you get proper stylish Rayban-style spectacles and not the horrid — if nostalgic — cardboard face-wear of old), I had gone to see Alice the first week it opened at the local multiplex. I’d been a fan of the Rev Dodgson’s finest since childhood, natch, and knew “Jabberwocky” and “The Walrus And The Carpenter” by heart. Many’s the time I’ve watched politicians, big and small, and thought of the Carpenter weeping for the fate of the poor oysters as he stuffs as many as possible into his blubbering gob under cover of his handkerchief.

So I was determined not to miss out. The visuals didn’t disappoint, even though the movie came hot on the heels of James Cameron’s Avatar blockbuster. The performances positively sparkled. I will say, though, that Matt Lucas, brilliantly cast as both Tweedledum and Tweedledee, was criminally underused. Johnny Depp in best Vivienne Westwood drag and eyes enlarged through CGI by 25 per cent, put in another one of his trademark oddball performances as the Mad Hatter who, played by the box-office pull, morphed into a centre-stage action hero. Burton’s missus, Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, allowed her director husband to commit gross uglification by hydroencephalising her pretty head. One laugh-out-loud moment is when this mass-murdering monster looks up at her evil swain and flutters her outsized eyes in a manner she assumes is appealing. Oh, the joy in the recognition that some of us just can’t do ‘cute’.

Mia Wasikowska played Alice as a feisty 19-year old Victorian miss, and very attractively too. In her shining armour and flowing pre-Raphaelite hair (be still, my beating heart!), she made the most stunningly beautiful boy in her climactic fight with the Jabberwock (voiced, in full-on stentorian mode, by no less a personage than Christopher Lee).

But the script … something failed to fully emotionally engage and I didn’t know what it was. Hmm … made for Disney, huh?

As the film was made for the Fascist Rodent corporation, I was surprised to see it foregrounding the druggy perspective, an interpretation popular since the tripped-out 60s, with a very stoned Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) sucking on a hookah which was more opium pipe than shisha.

Now, everyone seems to have assumed that Tim Burton had taken his eye off the ball with Alice and turned out a nice safe movie for Disney, and that the hint that this might be an opium dream was just a cheap way to reclaim a bit of his old transgressive credibility. Well, yes. But much more than this, oh, yes.

The framing device, before she falls down the rabbit hole and enters Wonderland, is set around Alice’s real life and her imminent engagement to Hamish (Leo Bill), a twittish minor aristocrat (aren’t they all?), offspring to Lady Ascot (Geraldine James) who wants Alice’s beauty in the family gene-pool so they can breed beautiful grandchildren for her. At the end, fresh out of her adventures in Underland, Alice rejects Hamish and a life of a privileged brood-mare, telling everyone what she thinks of them, and taking charge of her late father’s business in partnership with Hamish’s father, Lord Ascot.

Laid on with a shovel, Alice’s anachronistic feminist feistiness may have been irritating as an unconvincing attitude which was not so much seeing the age refracted through modern eyes, as completely rewriting history. But, in a great Tim Burton sleight-of-hand, there was something else going on which seems to have bypassed the studio execs. The Powers That Be may be congratulating themselves that this is a nice conventional tale of how white folk in the Imperial West (for the glory days of Great Britain, read the nostalgia for America’s ‘finest hour’) advanced themselves through trade, all with a dash of Girl Power.

But where did all that wealth come from? Burton and co-writer Linda Woolverton focus you on the business of how money is made in the opening scenes.

Alice’s father, (Marton Csokas as Charles Kingsleigh — does that make Alice a water baby?), is in shipping to the East Indies and Indonesia. But what looks at first glance as a ho-hum story of middle-class folk innocently making their fortune in the world with a feminist twist is dealt a sly kicking by the writers.

At the end, breadhead Alice — child of the British Empire — drags Lord Ascot into a room where she lays out the map of the world and analyses their current Eastern trade routes. Her new-found leadership skills (she has just slain the Jabberwock with her vorpal sword) take her beyond what’s known and into the relatively new area of trade with China. She points triumphantly at Hong Kong. THIS is where they will make their fortune. Her brush with the stoned Caterpillar and his drug habit has taught her where there is money to be made.

Anyone even slightly familiar with that slice of history knows about the Opium Wars, and exactly how Britain acquired Hong Kong. How, when our taste for China’s silks, spices, tea and porcelain threatened to empty the treasury of its silver, Britain cultivated cheap opium in Bengal and forced it on China at gunpoint. This was what Britain’s trade with China meant: in turning what had once been an aristocratic vice into a mass addiction, Britain became the world’s Number One Pusher and turned China into a nation of junkies.

And that’s where I nearly fell off my chair. Mr Burton, you sly dog, you. Never mind the lovely Johnny, I think I’m a little bit in love with Tim.

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6 thoughts on “Alice In Wonderland review: Disney and the Opium Wars”

  1. And if you go chasing rabbits
    And you know you're going to fall
    Tell 'em a hookah smoking caterpillar
    Has given you the call
    Call Alice
    When she was just small …

  2. Will you, won't you, will you, won't you, won't you join the dance?

    Would you walk a little faster, said a whiting to a snail
    There's a stoned caterpillar right behind me, and he' treading on my tail.

  3. I've been humming and hahing about seeing this. When it was first advertised in spite of the "pedigree" I thought not another adaptation. Having red your very informative review I will be booking a seat post hast. I've always enjoyed Burton's work and his subversive undertones.

  4. I found that the Mad Hatter wasn't mad enough. Really.

    I mean, when you combine the premier mad character from literature with a person who has demonstrated that he can play mad brilliantly, I expect the madness to shine through magnificently.

    Only during the tea party scene was there any real spark to the madness. A real missed opportunity in my opinion.

  5. I have yet to see this one but it will be doing well to improve on Jonathan Miller's 1966 BBC version [Peter Cook as the Hatter plus cameos from Gielgud, Sellers, Muggeridge, John Bird, and many others] with its score by Ravi Shankar and generally stoned air.

  6. Kristjan, a case of Johnny trying too hard? There seemed to be a lot crammed in. My favourite Depp performance was Sweeney Todd.

    Gwei Mui, worth seeing for the visuals but not Burton's best. Which some say, as has Brigada, the very weird TV version from 1966.

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