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)

14 Responses to “Review: Alice in Wonderland (2010) **”

  1. I’m going with three stars for this as on balance I thought it was passable. And apparently Burton and Depp are laughing their way to the back with a 41 million dollar Friday, a sure 100 million for the weekend, and potentially the most successful film for the first quarter of the year for all-time. But yeah there are problems here, and the film doesn’t really connect emotionally. This is one of your best reviews as of late, and you really delineate the problems, even while hoping that Depp would save the day. I say it’s worth a visit for him, some lovely set pieces and use of color, and for another fine score by Danny Elfman.

    I saw this in the standard 2D presentation, and I can’t see where 3 D would have made such a huge difference.

    Incidentally Craig, I have plans to see that documentary you issued a solid review for earlier in the week, THE ART OF THE STEAL tonight at our local art house multiplex.

  2. See ART OF THE STEAL in 3D! (kidding)

    Ordinarily, passable would’ve gotten 3 stars from me too, but I expect more from Burton and from Carroll. Mostly during the film itself I was just bored, and it was only in thinking about it afterward that I started to get annoyed at the sheer pointlessness of it.

    Depp definitely had his moments, but it wasn’t enough.

    I trust the younger members of the Juliano clan were suitably entertained.

  3. What I seek from a critical pan is astute analysis and deliciously crafted acidic humor. This entertaining review has a surfeit of both.

  4. Thanks guys. Sometimes all it takes to shake the dust off is a little piss and vinegar.

  5. Your take on the film contrasts markedly with Pete Quote Whore Hammond who gushed ‘Tim Burton, plus Alice, plus 3D equals an unforgettable, one-of-a-kind movie experience’.

  6. I didn’t like this at all. I’ve resisted the whole “Tim Burton has become a caricature of himself” talk, but in this case, it’s absolutely true. (Depp’s dancing might as well have been set to Harry Belafonte).

    And I’m not some purist that gawks at changing Lewis Carroll’s source novel, but Burton and Woolverton, in reworking the point-to-point episodic structure of the novel, basically just come up with a Narnia rip-off.

    And you’re right, Craig, the message here is limp and expected. Burton always has a current running through his films of “believe the impossible” and “embrace your inner madness – the weirdo inside of you” and this is, unfortunately, no different. The act has gotten stale.

  7. Glad to be as far away from Pete Hammond as I can get.

    I’ve been pretty forgiving of Burton in the past. I even liked large chunks of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Carroll to me isn’t just an untouchable sacred cow. I was counting on changes, I just wish they’d been interesting.

    Alice felt lazy and dull and yeah, the canned Burton message has grown tired. It fit a bit better when he was still kind of an outsider, bringing his own vision to life within the system. Here it just feels like he’s given up.

  8. Alice and Wonderland is still as flat and lifeless as a dormouse run over by a bandersnatch.

    Ouch. Didn’t read the whole review, but man, that’s going to leave a mark. Oh well, sorry you had a miserable time with it. Guess this goes on my back burner, set to “LO.”

  9. I say string ’em up! All of ’em! Hang each and every one of these buttheads, with Burton last so that, to paraphrase the Wicked Witch of the West, he can watch the others die before him.

    When the first two words of a review are, “Wincing pathetically,” you know you’re in for a treat.

    The characters from the original story all make appearances as though they were contractually obligated.

    Not a good sign.

    [S]pacey 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.

    Rachel Getting Wasted?

    (he’s mad you see!)

    (How to be descriptive in 4 words or less!)

    [T]he 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.

    Johnny Oop.

    [B]ut squeezed into this bald corporate sellout, Alice is reduced to a kind of gloomy pathetic ennui.

    The L’avventura of children’s fantasy films?

    This is too bad. I’d been looking forward to this one. I still plan to go, but now that I’ve had the pleasure of reading this pungent, scene-stealer-of-a-review, I suspect the best part may already be over.

  10. While some of your points do have a bite, I disagree with quite a bit of them. One is why stereotype a director completely. He has the freedom to change like everybody else doesn’t he? So why miss the gothic darkness? Also Alice is not bothered about corsets – that problem is on the society which even today, though in a more subtle way, impresses on how women should dress? The fact that she doesn’t care is I am sure a lesson which some girls would take home. I admire critical opinions but being overly critical just for critics sake is sometimes going overboard. Yes the movie has it’s flaws – who doesn’t – but describing it as completely flat is I am afraid too low! Hasta la vista. A self-declared Burton fan.

  11. Pierre, your comment was more entertaining than the movie, but don’t let my grouchiness dissuade you.

    Xprtease, if Burton had done something different from his usual, I would’ve been thrilled, but Alice to me felt like Burton watered down.

    Corsets or not, I think young girls these days have more pressing problems than what to wear. Not that Alice should’ve been about drugs and pre-teen pregnancy but it still seemed pretty shallow. Burton has been pounding the “let your freak flag fly” gong since the beginning of his career.

    Having said all that, I’m happy the film worked for you. There were several people in the audience I saw it with who also had a good time and a number of critics have given it positive reviews. This is just my own personal take.

  12. hmm craig, but when you saw the trailer months ago you had hope ???

  13. Hehe, love your last line in this one. Worse than being disappointed, I’ve already forgotten pretty much everything from the movie just a few days after seeing it. At this point chances are low that I’ll make an effort to see the next Burton/Depp/Carter collaboration. I might see it, but I won’t make an effort to.

  14. Yep. Already forgotten.

    I’m not soured on the collaboration just yet (though I did kind of wince when the original casting announcements hit), though it’s rapidly burning through whatever creative goodwill it has previously earned.

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