“ALICE IN WONDERLAND” COUNTDOWN: 4 DAYS
Are you ready for a trip down the rabbit hole? Tim Burton, Johnny Depp and Disney are adding a strange new chapter to the Lewis Carroll classic with their “Alice in Wonderland,” a film that presents a young woman who finds herself in the world of the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and the Red Queen. She is welcomed as a returning visitor — but is she, in fact, the same Alice who roamed the trippy realm as a child? Time will tell. Here at the Hero Complex, we’ve been counting down to the film’s release with a month of daily coverage.
When Tim Burton finally made the surprise proposal, Helena Bonham Carter was touched by how shy and befuddled he sounded. “He was so polite about it, and there were so many hesitations,” Bonham Carter said. “He said, ‘Would you consider, um, possibly, perhaps — but only if you want to — um, anyway, would you play the Red Queen?’ “
Bonham Carter, who has a nine-year romance and two children with Burton, giggled as she recounted the moment when she was invited to take on the royal role in “Alice in Wonderland,” the highly anticipated Disney film that opens Friday.
“It was like a proposal of marriage,” said the 43-year-old actress. Bonham is routinely misidentified as Burton’s wife.
“I was doing ‘Terminator Salvation’ at the time, and when he asked me, I was really flattered. It was a complete surprise! I know people think it’s disingenuous when I say that, but it’s true. They won’t understand this, but each time [he has a film], I truly don’t expect Tim to ever want to work with me again.”
That — like the shrinking potion in “Alice” — is a bit difficult to swallow. It will be 25 years ago this December that Bonham Carter had her career breakthrough in the role of Lucy Honeychurch in “A Room With a View,” and she has put together an eclectic list of credits with films such as “The Wings of a Dove” (which earned her an Oscar nomination), “Fight Club,” Franco Zeffirelli’s “Hamlet” and two “Harry Potter” films (with two more coming). Then, of course, there are movies she has made with Burton — “Alice” is the sixth since 2001, and in that span she has been a talking simian (“Planet of the Apes“), a moldering, undead woman (“Corpse Bride“) and, now, in “Wonderland,” a shrill queen with an abnormally swollen skull.
“I personally find it especially flattering that he tends to deform me in every movie,” Bonham Carter said. “But my mother and everyone asks me, ‘What is it with you and him?’ But that’s the point of acting isn’t it? It’s all dress-up.”
This time, the dress-up adventure is a surreal jaunt through Wonderland, in which Johnny Depp is the Mad Hatter, newcomer Mia Wasikowska handles the title role, and a deep roster of British actors (among them Alan Rickman, Michael Sheen and Stephen Fry) give voice to the unsettling animal kingdom on the other side of the rabbit hole.
No one has more memorable scenes, though, than Bonham Carter, whose role is a heady one, to say the least. A special camera and digital wizardry were used to magnify the star’s head, and the effect is a bit jolting to watch. In the plot, the queen’s monstrous noggin makes her a freak even by Wonderland’s standards.
For the record, Burton didn’t mention the major-league melon when he made his sweet proposal. “I learned that when I read it in the script,” Bonham Carter said with mock distress. “Oh, a huge head? I see, lovely.”
The film is a mix of live-action performance, green-screen motion-capture work and pure animation, which made for a dizzying amount of computation, crisis control and collaboration from Burton’s team. On the set, for instance, someone had to keep track of where the Red Queen’s mega-cranium would be in relation to doorways, furniture and other actors.
“The queen’s head was something we had to be careful to account for all the time,” visual-effects supervisor Ken Ralston said. “We had to remind people to back away from Helena in their scenes to give her head enough room.”
Burton said the key to the Red Queen was to make sure she wasn’t entirely evil or predictable and that her rivalry with her normal-headed sister, the White Queen (played by Anne Hathaway), would draw in the audience. He also tapped into some startling real-world inspirations for his bellowing Red Queen.
“In a lot of children’s literature and other literature, it’s kind of the same thing over and over — there’s good queens and bad queens, and here you have that, but the elements are a bit blurred,” Burton said. “Everybody’s weird and has weird qualities to them [in Wonderland]. She’s kind of a mixture. When I look at her now, she reminds me of pictures I’ve seen of Leona Helmsley. There’s a tiny bit of elements of my mother in there too, for some strange reason. And Helena brings her own things to it too.”
Linda Woolverton, the screenwriter for “Alice,” says the Red Queen grew up with a tumor in her head, which, in Wonderland’s version of physiology, made her head vast. “Linda told me it also made the queen emotionally volatile and arrested in her development,” Bonham Carter said with something close to sympathy. “We have a 2-year-old daughter, Nell. There are some similarities.”
Bonham Carter says some moviegoers will be surprised to learn that this new film is more like a sequel to Lewis Carroll’s familiar tales of Alice than a remake of, say, the 1951 Disney film or an updating of the many stage productions through the decades.
“Tim has changed things, and some purists will just slit their wrists when they see it,” she said, chuckling at her own gruesome imagery. “It’s all very invented, very new with this film and with good reason. The original Carroll stories are in fact very episodic — there isn’t a lot of huge narrative or dramatic drive. The story that Linda Woolverton invented is a mixture, it’s stolen from both [books by Carroll] but given a real context and a story and a purpose for the whole dream to occur.”
Bonham Carter says she doesn’t remember her own first encounters with Alice as a child. The Carroll images seemed more ambient in childhood.
“She’s so been around,” Bonham Carter said. “She’s definitely mythic. I can’t really remember how I first came to the story. I’ve always just had random impressions of it, the symbols and imagery, they’re just stuck with me. They’ve always entranced me — like the door and the keyhole and the ‘drink me’ potion and the ‘eat me’ cake.
“What is it about Alice? Why do we respond to it, and why does it still captivate us?”
Bonham Carter said an intriguing resonance of Carroll’s classic tales was the self-awareness that Alice had as she meandered through the exotic absurdity of Wonderland.
“She knows she’s in a dream, and we all know that feeling,” the actress said. “And the changing of size, there’s something in that too, the way children feel in an adult world or the way they fantasize about growing large and visible or to shrink away and be away from it.”
Bonham Carter’s early career had so many period pieces (“Lady Jane,” “Howards End,” “Where Angels Fear to Tread,” etc.) that she was viewed as a “corset queen” and, with some sourness, noted that she might have considered having some ribs removed to better handle the wardrobe demands of typecasting. Now, though, with Burton and the “Potter” influence, she has taken a sharp turn into the world of fantasy and special effects. She is still leery, though, of letting technology get top billing above story and acting.
“I haven’t seen too many 3D movies, for instance, and I don’t think they all work that well, but I think with this one, with ‘Alice,’ it’s a perfect marriage of 3D and subject matter. I think with a lot of the 3D films, it’s a bit gratuitous. But with this story, you have all the shrinking and changing of size so there’s an opportunity to use the technology in an interesting way.”
The technology does have some negative side effects though. Burton, it turns out, can’t really see his beloved the same way he used to. “Oh, it’s true, I can’t even look at Helena anymore because now her real head just seems like a small orange,” the director deadpanned. “It’s like she’s got some shrunken head. It’s sad.”
— Geoff Boucher
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Photos: Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen. Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. Credit: Disney Enterprises
UPDATE: An earlier version of this post had a film title wrong, it is corrected now. Off with our heads!