How Does Tim Burton Make Alice in Wonderland His Own? | Set Picks
Tim Burtons is a filmmaker with a very distinctive style. There are design elements and themes that are found across his whole portfolio of work. With Alice in Wonderland, it’s particularly interesting to see how he transforms such a well-known and iconic story into something of his own. So, that’s what I’m going to explore today.
What makes up Tim Burton’s style?
The worlds that Burton creates often consist of two contrasting worlds, firstly the hyper-real world and then the dark whimsical world. Take Edward Scissorhands for example, Edward’s home is this grand exaggerated and dark mansion but he then enters the world of repetitive suburbia normalcy, this world is very familiar yet once again exaggerated. Each of these settings is pivotal to the storytelling and in getting to know the contrasting lives of each of the characters.
There is always this veil of darkness over the settings of his films, whether that’s the streets of London in Sweeny Todd, the city of Gotham in Batman or Halloween Town in The Nightmare Before Christmas. Even in the more colourful and fun settings, he manages to create an unsettling undertone that creates an eerie sense of darkness, like in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
Alice in Wonderland’s iconic imagery
There are a lot of visual elements that are iconic to the story of Alice in Wonderland. In fact, as soon as Alice plummets into the rabbit hole it’s nothing but iconic imagery. These things are what make it Wonderland. Things like the Mad Hatter’s Teaparty, The Queen of Hearts and the pack of card soldiers, and The Chesire Cat’s smiles.
These things, and Wonderland as a whole have been referenced countless times in art and pop culture. The first that spring to mind for me is Taylor Swift’s song ‘Wonderland’ and she’s not the only singer to have a song inspired by this (Lady Gaga or Gwen Stefani for example). It’s a place and a story that has meant a lot to so many people.
So, how is Burton able to take such well-known imagery and turn it into something of his own while staying true to the source material? It’s a fine line to balance.
Alice in Wonderland meets Tim Burton
Something Tim Burton and Alice in Wonderland have in common is whimsy. Both are so successful in creating dream-like worlds that somehow audiences are able to relate to. These two pre-existing universes combine to create something so wonderfully wacky and often edging on creepy.
He has been able to create this retelling of the story as a sequel in a way that repeats or references a lot of the most familiar parts of the story, while also adding a brand new layer of edge and darkness. This is really the way in which these two worlds collide to become one.
A setting where we really see these conflicting elements, which is actually already a big part of the source material, is the Queen of Heart’s Palace. We learn that the repetitive use of hearts is actually because the Queen’s deepest desire is to be loved. Very clearly she projects this desire in the cruellest of ways which makes her palace a very dark and gloomy place. This darkness creates such an interesting juxtaposition with the imagery of love hearts.
Referencing back to the changing of worlds that Burton often includes in his storytelling, we also get that in the original Alice in Wonderland tale. She goes from the mundanity, routine and expectations of the real world to the kookiness and madness of Wonderland. Very similar to Dorothy’s journey in The Wizard of Oz, which I also made a comparison to when looking at Olivia Rodrigo’s ‘Vampire’ music video, this is a story that is timeless. Visually you can see the change through more exaggerated colour palettes, rigid straight lines becoming wonky, and all the rules of proportions and looks no longer existing. This is a contrast that Burton is exceptional at.
My favourite settings of the whole film are when Alice is shrunk down and is amongst the smallest parts of nature that now tower over her. The mushrooms in particular look incredible, looking at them in the enormity that they are in these scenes allowed all this additional detail that makes them appear quite magical, further removing her from the rules of the real world.
What’s your favourite scene from this retelling? ★
Images from Alice in Wonderland (2010) taken from FILMGRAB