Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland
, and subsequent follow-up, Through the Looking Glass
, are works of pure madness, utter flights of ridiculous fantasy that are beloved precisely because of their nonsensical nature. So why is it then that Tim Burton's
foray into the realm of Wonderland seems so sensible? So linear? So...dull? This is the man who brought us the insane worlds of Beetle Juice
, Big Fish
, and Edward Scissorhands
, some of the most imaginatively weird filmmaking of the last 20 years. And yet here we are with a Wonderland
that feels flat and lifeless, even in its hacked-together digital 3D presentation.
I won't blame this disaster on Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton's
decision to not simply remake the original Alice
tale, as Burton did with miserable results in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory
. This film acts as a sort of sequel to Alice's earlier adventures, albeit with the expected callbacks. All the standard accouterments of Wonderland are there, such as drinks that shrink you, cakes that grow you, outdoor tea parties with walking, talking animals, and a despotic crimson queen with an army of playing card soldiers and a penchant for beheadings.
What's different this time around is Alice herself. Played by 19 year old actress Mia Wasikowska
, the now grown-up Alice has all but forgotten her earlier time spent in Wonderland—or, Underland, as it is apparently called here, in a surprisingly direct acknowledgment of how little wonder there is in this place—only flashing back to those strange times in what she perceives to be bizarre nightmares. More nightmarish, it seems, is her current station in Victorian era life. She's set to be married to a sniffling, stodgy, digestively-beleaguered lord whom she has little affection for, something her burgeoning feminist ideals can't quite stomach. While desperately stalling for time at her own engagement party, she happens upon a familiarly waist-coated white rabbit milling about. She chases after it, only to find herself tumbling down the rabbit hole back into Wonderland.
Perhaps it's because this all seems familiar from her strange dreams that Alice comes across as less than curious about this peculiar world she's tumbled into. Or, more likely, it's because Wasikowska, pale and furrowing throughout, never comes across as a particularly interested party in any of this. No matter how many talking rabbits and wisping cats she comes across, she seems sleepy and bored with the whole thing. Alice the character spends a great deal of time talking about wanting to wake up. I kind of wish Burton had told Wasikowska the actress to do the same thing.
Anyway, as it happens, Alice's returned is preordained, mapped out in a sort of fatidic scroll that she will one day slay the fearsome jabberwocky. which the vile Red Queen has used to unseat her goodly sister, the White Queen, and spread terror throughout Wonder...er, Under
land. This leads Alice into debates about destiny and choices and all that boilerplate adventure story whateverness, and eventually a third-act battle between the sides of good and evil. I ask you, what is any of this doing in a movie called Alice in Wonderland
? Did Lewis Carroll's fiction really seem like it was one clumsy, one-liner filled battle sequence away from perfection? Of course not. And the very notion of Alice's destiny seems completely antithetical to what Wonderland...sigh, Underland
is supposed to be. It's a place of pure balderdash, utter madness, the sublimely nonsensical. This movie doesn't just fail to capture that, it willfully tosses it aside in favor of a storyline so generic it practically sucks the wonder right out of the scenery. It's like Alice in Narnia, and that's absolutely not a compliment.
Not that the scenery was really that incredible to begin with, mind you. To be sure, Burton and crew have made a generally nice looking film. The environments look about as you would expect W...Underland to look through Burton's personal filter, though it's probably for the best if you don't see this movie in 3D. It's not particularly well done, and multiple fast-moving sequences turn into a kind of unpleasant blur with the 3D treatment.
The CG representations of the various Underland denizens are mostly enjoyable, though few really feel unique. Helena Bonham Carter's
Red Queen is the obvious standout, with a bulbous head that's like a near-bursting balloon attached to a walking air tank. She's perfectly petulant in the role. Shame she isn't given more to do than beyond screaming her token line (you know the one) over and over again. The vaporous Cheshire Cat, voiced by Stephen Fry
, steals nearly every scene. Every time he wafts into frame, the movie becomes exponentially more charming. Sad there isn't more of him. The perpetually smoking Blue Caterpillar ( Alan Rickman
) and the walking stress balls that are Tweedledee and Tweedledum ( Matt Lucas
) are pretty nifty as well, as are the various CG rabbits, mice, frogs, and dogs that mill about the world, though none of them offer up anything terribly memorable either.
Other characters, specifically the ones less steeped in computer graphics, fare worse. Crispin Glover's
turn as Stayne, the Knave of Hearts is largely undone by the awkwardness of his CG body. He's supposed to be tall and lanky, but it seems like nobody could quite agree how exaggerated he should be. Anne Hathaway's
turn as the White Queen is a peculiar one. Her inherent goodness is represented less by anything she says or does and more by the fact that she's tinted ghostly white and the way she sashays around like a wayward ballerina.
Apart from Wasikowska's Alice, I think the biggest disappointment for me was Johnny Depp's
Mad Hatter. When Depp does a Burton film, you're either in for something truly special, or something eccentrically off-putting. This is more the latter. Looking like Carrot Top
wandered out of a Kabuki presentation of Mary Poppins
, Depp is mad in all the wrong ways here. His infrequent Scottish inflection is less zany and more indecipherable, his mannerisms rarely denote madness as much as creepy awkwardness, and when he's forced to pop and lock to what sounds like a Victorian funk jam in the most cringe-inducing dance sequence since Spider-Man 3
, you almost start to feel sorry for him. There is no meat to this character, and certainly not enough for the sort of de-facto lead role that's been carved out for him. He flails endlessly, and never gets a grip on what makes the Mad Hatter so enjoyably mad.
That Tim Burton could so spectacularly fail to capture a world so seemingly ripe for his unique brand of imagination is simply unbelievable, and yet here we are. Maybe the problems come from the restrictions of working on a Disney-backed, family friendly picture (though to be fair, there are an awful lot of severed heads for such a PG flick), maybe it's rooted in the flaws of Woolverton's script, or maybe Burton just didn't really care very much. It certainly feels that way. He pours bucket and buckets of visual whimsy into this thing, but it all slides right off. Nothing sticks, nothing grips, nothing endures. Wonderland can be a fiasco, it can be a spectacular mess, but the one thing it should never, ever be is boring, and that is Alice in Wonderland's