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There’s Too Much Burton in My Wonderland! Once Upon a Time and the Burton Alice Sequel

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burtonaliceWork has begun on Alice Through the Looking Glass. All of the cast is back (except Crispin Glover?), as well as the creative crew from the first one. Burton is stepping back to produce while The Muppets director, James Bobin, is taking over. Like the first, the plot will be nothing like the book it takes its name from. Apparently we’ll meet the Mad Hatter’s father and Time will be a character (which makes some sense: “‘If you knew Time as well as I do,’ said the Hatter, ‘you wouldn’t talk about wasting it.'”) I am attempting to reckon with how I feel about this, and it’s complicated. I was won over by the visuals of the first one, but the portrayals of characters were a mixed bag (Hathaway was great but couldn’t quite tip the scales to balance Depp and Bonham-Carter). I liked the opening of the film where we see the “real” people behind the fantastical characters and can see the twist of reality that makes Wonderland, but, overall, much of the spirit of the original book was lost.

I am, with a few exceptions, an Alice in Wonderland purist. I prefer the book to pretty much all other forms, and most of the film adaptations I actually like are broad re-interpretations of the original. The ones who try to come close pretty much just screw it up. Disney animated film? I loathe it. Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away? I adore it. See what I mean?

Recently we got to the season 1 episode of Once Upon a Time where they introduce the Mad Hatter and, thus, Wonderland. I knew this episode would be contentious for me.

madhatterThe Once Upon a Time treatment of Carroll’s story sorta tries to both offer up a recognizable vision and an alternative, but because it starts with the alternative, I was more won over by the episode before I was repulsed by the “truer” Wonderland. Sebastian Stan plays Jefferson, aka the Mad Hatter, and he does well by it, moving across a continuum of unassuming stranger, loving father, arm-twisted portal jumper, scary potential murderer, and loony, desperate hatter. I would have preferred the misogyny of the Storybrooke parts of the episode to be dialed back, because so many “grittier” reinterpretations of the Hatter make him (or her if they gender switch) to be a knife-wielding maniac, so it felt too cliched and unnecessary. However, there were some charming visual and dialogue touches that connected to various parts of the greater Wonderland narrative – Grace, the daughter, wanting a suited White Rabbit doll for their father-daughter tea parties, the hunting of mushrooms to sell at market, the croquet set in the daughter’s room.

But once Jefferson (a reference to Jefferson Airplane’s famous “White Rabbit”) takes the Evil Queen into Wonderland, it all goes to crap. The Wonderland of the show looks very much like a cheapo version of the Tim Burton film, and once in place, it’s clear that Stan’s costuming is a more subtle version of Johnny Depp’s. And while I often like how Once Upon a Time makes visual homages to the Disney versions of their stories, here it ignited that Wonderland purist in me and turned me against it. (Though I suppose I’m relieved they didn’t use the animated Disney film as their visual source.) The caterpillar is completely uninspired. It’s as if he’s an animatronic at Disneyland, seeming to interact with the characters with his “Who are you?” hookah-puffing, but not actually seeing them there. The veiling of the Queen of Hearts was clever but ham-fisted, keeping mysterious her identity so that she could be revealed later in Storybrooke to ignite some dramatic irony with Emma or the Evil Queen (or both).

Hall_of_DoorsHowever I did like the Nightmare Before Christmas crossed with the Hall of Doors portal into Wonderland (and presumably the many other worlds). I also really enjoyed the multiple worlds knowledge Hatter had. “Some [worlds] have magic, some do not, and some need it,” he says to Emma, trying to convince her she’s magic and can make the hat work. One of the things that chaps me about reinterpretations of Alice is that they are frequently ignorant of the logic, math, and science that Lewis Carroll used to create his “madness”. There’s no out and out crazy-for-no-reason in the Carroll books. Why is the Mad Hatter crazy? Because mercury was a key ingredient in the making of hats. Why is the March Hare crazy? Because March is prime mating season for rabbits. Those are just the obvious ones. So good on OUAT for bringing multi-verse theory into the backstory of the Hatter’s madness! I applaud that creative twist, since it’s in line with Carroll’s vision.

Because we’re catching up with OUAT, I understand that the Wonderland storyline is going to tease into the Once Upon a Time in Wonderland spin-off that didn’t survive long. So there’s clearly lots more coming in future episodes. Hopefully both OUAT and the new Burton sequel will give me more of the logical/reality-inspired madness and less of the simply crazy-town vision of Wonderland.

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Author: Erin Perry

I'm a high school English teacher specializing in AP Literature and Film Analysis. I'm interested in most things geeky, including superheroes, vampires, zombies, teen culture, postmodern philosophy, pop culture analysis, and combinations of the aforementioned. Follow me on Twitter @eriuperry.

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