Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland
By Matthew Huntley
March 16, 2010
As I think back on Tim Burton's extravagant Alice in Wonderland, one word keeps coming to mind: underwhelming. A Tim Burton film can be many things, but hitherto now, underwhelming has never been one of them. I've been disappointed by the eccentric filmmaker before, but despite his often questionable storytelling methods, which sometimes work and sometimes don't, his films have always had the advantage of being (and looking) interesting. They've never been dull. That's why it's so ironic and unsettling to think it took a fanciful story like Alice to change that.
Perhaps I've been spoiled by Disney's 1951 animated version of Alice in Wonderland, with its high energy, bright colors and plucky young heroine. As a kid, I remember liking and having great sympathy for Alice, who, despite the bizarre situations she found herself in, always maintained her manners and propriety. Burton's version relinquishes those qualities. Its story is plodding; its look is bland and monochromatic; and the actress playing Alice, Mia Wasikowska, is too soft-spoken and dry to fully embody the character; she doesn't seem like she even wants to be there. When you compare the animated and live-action versions, you wonder why anyone felt the latter was even necessary. It wasn't.
This is a darker and more cynical adaptation of Lewis Carroll's famous novels, which is a fine and novel approach to the material, but it seems to come at the expense of the story's imagination and high spirits. This time, the world of Wonderland is drab and overcast and its peculiar inhabitants don't seem at all happy. They're more cautious and miserable than funny or jolly. That goes for Alice too, who, at the age of 20, runs away from a marriage proposal to chase a rabbit down a steep hole, which sets her adventure in motion.
Alice is actually aware of Wonderland before she gets there - she's been having a recurring dream about it for the past 13 years, which might explain her lack of excitement when she enters the world through a tiny door and apathetically greets the talking plants and animals. But even if Alice has been dreaming about it, shouldn't she at least appear excited, happy, fearful, anxious or incredulous about this strange place when she arrives in the flesh, especially when she pinches herself and doesn't wake up? Because she's relatively unaffected, our level of intrigue goes down too.
Burton doesn't seem all that excited, either. Ideally, when he first shows us Wonderland, it should be like a crescendo since we're seeing it for the first time. But no, Alice merely walks around and we don't get a very detailed description of her surroundings. It's almost like the film is ashamed of itself. When Alice meets such notable characters as the White Rabbit (voice of Michael Sheen), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), we're not as giddy or stimulated as we should be. It feels like the film is checking off its characters instead of celebrating them or putting them to good use.
Even the fearless presence of Johnny Depp doesn't help and Wonderland never really comes alive, even after you consider it could be due to the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) being in charge. Still, I can't help but think life would be the same with the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) running the show.
I liked that Linda Woolverton's screenplay incorporates situations and characters from both of Carroll's novels - Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass - but what it does with them is rather typical and straightforward in the realm of fantasy adventures. The plot centers on Alice rescuing the Mad Hatter from the Red Queen and defeating her Jabberwocky (dragon-like creature). She must also outsmart the queen's right-hand man, Stayne, played by Crispin Glover, whose head is never appropriately fitted to his CGI body, which proved to be a viewing distraction.
The idea of making Alice in Wonderland something different than what we're used is a promising one, but it doesn't seem like the filmmakers, who had an enormous budget and nearly limitless resources at their disposal, really acted on it. Why must the story boil down to a rescue mission and the kind of battle sequence we've seen a hundred times over? Tim Burton is a director who likes to take existing stories and put his own unique twist on them, but that twist seemed to be missing this time around.
I wouldn't go so far as to say I was bored by Alice in Wonderland, but I imagine I would be on subsequent viewings. Instead of dazzling us with wondrous imagery, zany characters and inspired action and effects, the movie is surprisingly flat. That's another word you don't expect to describe a Tim Burton film, but there's a first time for everything.