The James Clayton Column: The lunatics are at the flicks

James went to see Alice In Wonderland to get away from the madness of life. No one seemed to tell the other people in the screening, though...

Curioser and curioser. Looking over the list of films on general release you could easily mistake a trip to the multiplex for a day out at the asylum. Crazy people everywhere! I go to the movies to get away from the loonies out there but, lo and behold, if I go to the cinema I’ve got a choice of The Crazies, Crazy Heart or the crackpot imaginings of Lewis Carroll and Tim Burton combined in Alice In Wonderland. Now that Shutter Island has arrived, I reckon we’ve reached that milestone moment where the cinema has truly turned into a sanatorium with popcorn and preview trailers.

The difference between walking about on the streets of my hometown and sitting in the multiplex is negligible apart from the fact that the flicks have a bit more blood and Jeff Bridges singing a country soundtrack. Because I’ve never seen a talking rabbit in Bolton (in fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen any signs of intelligent life in Bolton) Alice In Wonderland seemed to be the lunacy-fringed film sufficiently removed from real life enough to appeal to me.

Yet, I was apprehensive about Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland. I love the director’s movies but Lewis Carroll’s original concoction occupies a special place deep down inside. Personally, I’d only be prepared to hand over the keys to the little door of Wonderland to Terry Gilliam, but big studios don’t like him. With Disney at the helm I was worried that the latest take on Alice In Wonderland would not adequately represent the source material and either end up a Burtonified piece of gothic fantasia or Disney tweeny-pop product.

The only Burton films I’ve seen that have really offended me are his brace of Batman flicks and that’s because, to me, the caped crusader is all the depth and grim darkness of Frank Miller comics. Gotham City suffered the indignity of being turned into toytown in two campy blockbusters so cheesy that even Christopher Nolan’s takes on the Dark Knight haven’t managed to suppress the lingering stench of fromage. With memories of Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman surfacing, cracking the whip and making me cringe, I feared that my beloved Wonderland might similarly be besmirched.

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Fortunately, I enjoyed the movie and was relieved to find that it never felt like I was watching Alice In Burton-land. That said, it wasn’t quite Carroll’s Alice In Wonderland and, pretty much, felt like an Alice adaptation made by a major studio with mainstream audiences and mass 3D screenings on their mind. Herein lies the problem…

What makes Lewis Carroll’s original idea so compelling and exciting is the fact that Alice’s Wonderland is a fantasy world where chaos reigns supreme. All our rules, order, logic and reason mean nothing down the rabbit hole. Everything is upside down, inside out, is and isn’t, was and wasn’t. Beyond the looking glass is an alternate reality of distorted time, space and proportion where ‘real world’ limits and restrictions have no place. It is thus a land of possibility (or rather, impossibility) which makes it so much more enchanting than such practical fantasy destinations as, say, Oz or Narnia.

The Wonderland of waistcoat-wearing rabbits, smoking caterpillars and transcendental Cheshire Cats is only ‘mad’ and ‘nonsense’ because it doesn’t conform to the standards and norms of our ‘reality’. Ideally, adaptations should be as insane and outlandish as possible and dispense with any desire to make sense.

Maybe it’s too much to ask Disney to deliver a psychiatrist’s nightmare but, still, Alice In Wonderland just isn’t crazy enough. It isn’t insane enough for Lewis Carroll and it isn’t even bizarre enough to feel suitably Tim Burton.

Post-Avatar, Disney has set Alice In Wonderland up as the first mainstream 3D family event movie. Ultimately, for the studio bigwigs it’s not about Burton’s vision or Carroll’s bonkers world, but about box office takings. This not only means that there’s a limit on lunacy (it seems psychosis isn’t family-friendly), but that the screenings are packed full of ignorant people.

Alice In Wonderland was spoiled for me by other spectators in the auditorium – the people I go to the cinema to get away from. It was two hours of constant loud chewing, bag rumpling and parents talking to their kids. On screen Helena Bonham Carter had a ridiculously large head and Johnny Depp was prancing through a picturesque dreamscape of colour and wonder, but yet, people – having paid £8.70 for the pleasure of such visual delights – would rather mutter to the person next to them and play noisily with their 3D specs.

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If Burton and his brilliant band of unusual suspects had never been accepted into the mainstream, chances are Alice In Wonderland wouldn’t have been an essential event flick. Likewise, if it wasn’t a Disney movie, it wouldn’t have to be so accessible.

Never mind being loopy for Lewis Carroll’s sake. Alice In Wonderland should’ve been even more insane so as to upset viewers. People wouldn’t go and see a cerebellum-skewering trip that left them psychologically disturbed and sought to smash all rationale. Mainstream audiences allegedly don’t like to be challenged or feel repulsed, so they wouldn’t go and see it. This means there’d be less chance of a cinema trip being spoiled by restless morons who don’t care about the movie but have dragged their ADD-addled spawn out to collectively ruin the experience for everyone else.

It’s a shame that Tim Burton can’t travel back in time and make Alice In Wonderland before wider society decided that he was no longer ‘really warped and weird’ and rather ‘acceptably quirky’. The only other way to save me from the loonies that lurk on the streets outside and allow me to immerse myself fully in the impossible possibilities of Wonderland – aside from making an avant-garde surrealist feature – would be to wait until they invent 4D film.

If you threw yourself into the 4th dimension and actually lived the film alongside Alice, you wouldn’t end up distracted by the mobile phones and excessively loud mastication of the other cinemagoers. What’s more, these rude people, who’ve apparently come to the cinema not to watch a spectacular film, would be forced to stop fiddling and plunged head first into a deranged dreamworld without logic or reason. It’d blow their minds, if they had minds to begin with.

Either that or they get savaged by the Jabberwocky and the rest of us get to enjoy Alice In Wonderland in peace and quiet.

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James’ previous column can be found here.