Mia Wasikowska in Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland
Wincing pathetically as it does in the large shadow of the great Lewis Carroll, the biggest sin of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is not that it’s an impotent pretender to the original literary icon, but that it’s a faded looking glass reflection of what we used to love about Burton himself. As a fan of both the author and the flimmaker, it’s all rather depressing.
Burton’s twisted sensibility was never a good fit for the industrialized Disney family entertainment factory where he began his career as an animator – Disney originally released The Nightmare Before Christmas under their Touchstone banner fearing it was too strange for the Little Mermaid crowd – but now he’s back nursing the Disney corporate teat, churning out a palid simulacrum of a beloved childhood favorite. Seen in 2D or in 3D, Alice and Wonderland is still as flat and lifeless as a dormouse run over by a bandersnatch.
The story picks up when Alice is 19 and Wonderland is only remembered as a recurring series of childhood dreams. At a surprise engagement party where she learns she will be asked to marry a pasty, humorless Englishman, Alice spots a vaguely familiar, pocket-watch-carrying white rabbit in a waistcoat who leads her down the old rabbit hole and back to the fantasy land of her childhood. It seems Wonderland has decayed after years of rule under the Red Queen, but all her old friends are there – the white rabbit, the Cheshire cat, the caterpillar and of course the Mad Hatter – and they all hope she’ll steal the vorpal sword and slay the jabberwocky so the people will rise up and overthrow the queen.
The characters from the original story all make appearances as though they were contractually obligated, but they do little more than mark time. Nothing is added to them. A few help advance the plot such as it is, but most manage to be thoroughly uninteresting and almost instantly forgotten. Helena Bonham Carter does her best as the bulbous headed Red Queen, but even her constant shouts of “off with his head!” lack conviction. Alan Rickman can’t help but be kind of great, which makes it too bad he’s wasted in only a couple of scenes as the languid CGI caterpillar. Stephen Fry adds nothing to the Cheshire Cat though it is at least a victory of production design and computer animation. Michael Sheen barely registers as the digital white rabbit while Crispin Glover’s turn as the eye-patch-sporting henchman, the King of Knaves, could’ve been played by anyone. When has that ever been said about a Glover performance? Meanwhile, as the White Queen, a spacey Anne Hathaway appears to have been huffing whatever the caterpillar was smoking in between takes. She’s like Oz’s Glenda the Good Witch after an afternoon in a Chinatown opium den. Of the supporting cast, Matt Lucas probably makes the biggest impression as the sweet but querulous Tweedledee and Tweedledum. They’re two characters you actually wouldn’t mind seeing more of.
That leaves Johnny Depp to save the movie in the way he almost manages to do with Bruckheimer’s crappy pirate movies. With his creepy white makeup, crazy contact lenses and a frizzy red wig, Depp almost resuscitates Alice as it flat lines, but sadly it’s too little too late. Swooning randomly from a guttural Scottish brogue to a kind of lispy, post-week-long-ecstasy-bender-WillyWonka (he’s mad you see!), the Hatter makes no real sense nor does he establish a convincing case for even being in the movie except that his bizarre visage lends itself to a fetching poster.
At least he’s something to watch and, in this listless hodgepodge, that’s saying a lot. There’s a scene where Depp is stalking through the forest in crazed Scotsman mode murmuring lines from Jabberwocky, the Lewis Carroll nonsense poem that appeared in Through The Looking Glass and What Alice Found There. It’s a pretty great reading and for a flickering moment Alice stirs with dark life, but hope quickly fades. In the end, it’s just another reminder of how much better Lewis Carroll is and of the pointlessness of this disaster for which his material has being bastardized.
With a story that would barely fill a digitized thimble inside of a video game plot and characters who do little more than hit their marks, you’re left hoping that Burton will at least deliver some of his interesting trademark visual flair. It’s true there are some fun character designs and they’re Alice‘s strongest suit, but they’re never enough to lift the film beyond the ordinary. Above ground, Alice’s world is oddly milky and washed out while Wonderland itself is a murky, mildewy wallow. The whole thing is a desultory mess and the overall aesthetic seems to be one of slouching capitulation rather than artistic verve. Worse still, Burton’s usual quirky gothic darkness is completely MIA. Lewis Carroll’s stuff is plenty dark and creepy without the Burton touch, but squeezed into this bald corporate sellout, Alice is reduced to a kind of gloomy pathetic ennui. Where’s the stamp of the man who once imagined Edward Scissorhands?
There is a trove of ripe material in Alice’s final journey into womanhood, but this girl’s biggest problems are corsets and undesirable suitors. The horror! Reduced to a vague, Avril Lavigne-sung anthem to girl power, Alice in Wonderland is a squandered opportunity to offer young girls something honest and real. With no message and little more in the way of entertainment value, Alice is a gruel-thin waste of effort that overstays even its relatively brisk sub-two-hour running time. Whatever modest pleasures it offers quickly evaporate like the Cheshire Cat, leaving only the wilting realization you’ve been burned to leer back at you with a disembodied smile.
Alice in Wonderland. USA 2010. Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by Linda Woolverton from the stories by Lewis Carroll. Cinematography by Dariusz Wolski. Music score composed by Danny Elfman. Edited by Chris Lebenzon. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Matt Lucas, Crispin Glover, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman and Timothy Spall. 1 hour 49 minutes. MPAA rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar (hah!). 2 stars (out of 5)
Filed under: Review
Tags: Alan Rickman, Anne Hathaway, Chris Lebenzon, Crispin Glover, Danny Elfman, Dariusz Wolski, Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, Lewis Carroll, Linda Woolverton, Matt Lucas, Mia Wasikowska, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Tim Burton, Timothy Spall