Review: Alice In Wonderland, 2010, dir. Tim Burton

I’d hoped to put some distance between myself and Sweeney Todd before reviewing Alice In Wonderland, and with a couple other reviews in the pipeline I thought this a genuine possibility. But alas, Alice became the greater writing priority after catching it in 3D this weekend, and even more regrettably, that’s not because I actually enjoyed the film.

Alice In Wonderland tells the story of Alice Kingsley, who we first meet as a six year old relaying the details of a bad dream to her father; in a needless opening we’re told of a dodo bird, a caterpillar, a hare, and all of the other odd creatures Alice meets in the dream that constitutes the first Wonderland adventure. Flash-forward thirteen years and Alice (Mia Wasikowska) attends a posh, bourgeois garden party and avoids a marriage proposal by falling down a rabbit hole, leading her back to the fantasy world of her childhood– which, on first glance, is no longer the fantasy world of her childhood. Smeared in a color palette that walks the line between grotesque and captivating, Wonderland (now known as Underland) has been ravaged and corrupted under the influence of the Red Queen’s (Helena Bonham-Carter) rule, and we learn that Alice must follow her prophecied path and slay the monstrous Jabberwocky on Frabjuous day to free Wonderland’s inhabitants and restore the crown to the White Queen (Ann Hathaway). In between trite and hackneyed nonsense about destiny, we’re treated to an enormous array of CGI creatures and landscapes, all seemingly conceived without a trace of wonder or awe.

How do you forget the whimsy and magic of this story? Burton, in charge of this mess of an offering, draws out the juice of the story and disposes of it in favor of the aesthetic touches that make his work so recognizably his– gonzo imagery defined by its perfectly engineered wrongness (twisting, bending, curling trees!), color-saturation, and a general, purposeless sense of quirkiness. If there’s any wonder to be found here it’s certainly in the performances (primarily voice-work) of the astoundingly talented cast, particularly Stephen Fry as the casually aloof Cheshire Cat and Alan Rickman as hookah afficianado Absolem, the wise and sharp-tongued caterpillar. I don’t mean to say that their performances (among others) lift up the film, but rather that they seem to be the only collaborators on the project who “get” the source material, while director Burton completely misses the point.

Where’s the Tim Burton who brought us Ed Wood? Hell, where’s the Burton who brought us Big Fish not even a decade ago? He seems to be lost in the aether, or, more likely, willingly captive to the noise and bustle of transitioning from Tim Burton, filmmaker, to Tim Burton, commodity and brand-name. Starting with the ugly-to-be-beautiful art design that makes his films immediately recognizable as Tim Burton films, and ending with the repeated use of the same roster of actors in his films (from the minor players, like Timothy Spall and Rickman, to the headliners, like Helena Bonham-Carter and Johnny Depp), Burton no longer makes movies as much as he makes visual packages for audiences built to satisfy their expectations for both elements, creating a familiar product within his and his viewers’ comfort zones. The problem isn’t that Burton isn’t creative, it’s that he funnels his creativity into reproducing the same kind of movie in different settings over and over again, but given the note that Alice ends on we might easily surmise that he doesn’t really care.

Even if Burton’s vision is familiar, the film could have been compelling on the strengths of the story. Naturally, then, Burton takes liberties with the story of Lewis Carroll’s original work, none for the better. Did Carroll need to be merged with Tolkien and Lewis? Burton’s Alice feels like the lesser sibling of the Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia, and as it turns out it’s a combination that nobody ever needed to see. Being totally plebeian, it’s completely stupid; swords, sorcery, duels, and battles are out of place in Wonderland. In fact, those elements are so mismatched with the story that it borders on the offensive, but more than that, a climactic ending battle between the armies of the rival Queens, where the Mad Hatter crosses blades with the Knave of Hearts, is actually more bizarre here than trials over stolen tarts or a Mock Turtle, among other things. The battle scene is almost such a convention in fantasy that in an adaptation of Alice In Wonderland, it simply doesn’t belong.

The film also may as much represent Burton’s undoing as an artist as Depp’s painful decline as an actor. In fact, between the overall picture itself and Depp’s turn as the Mad Hatter, it’s hard to choose which is the greater crime. You may have noticed that Alice‘s marketing campaign revolves wholly around selling Depp’s image, so much so that the film might as well have been called The Mad Hatter In Wonderland or, cutting out the middle-man, Johnny Depp In Wonderland, and while I’d originally assumed that his omnipresence in the trailers and TV spots had to do solely with using his star power to sell tickets, it turns out that he’s almost as ubiquitous in the film as he is in the advertising. Perhaps, then, partial blame should be placed with Burton for making the Hatter into a more prevalent character in the plot of the story, but in the end the badness of Depp’s performance is entirely his own. Depp giggles and mumbles and lisps his way through the movie, providing absolutely no stability or shape to the newly fleshed-out character; he plays the advisor role to Alice, an orange-haired dandy Mr. Miyagi to her Daniel, and, more than that, he has a backstory. The additions aren’t welcome in the first place, and Depp doesn’t do anything with either element, falling back on his worst behaviors as an actor as though Burton simply let him wander unchecked through takes. Depp’s batting average has been below average of late as it stands, but Alice In Wonderland presents an all-time low for the actor, and if I see a more unmastered performance this year I’ll consider it a demented and cruel kind of miracle.

Other cast members do what they can to dazzle and entertain us. As mentioned before, Rickman and Fry are delights, so much so that I could see a Caterpillar and Cheshire Cat In Wonderland movie completely blowing my mind, and seeing Crispin Glover play a restrained, effective villain is always fun, but a good deal of praise should be given to Wasikowska for her interpretation of Alice as well, if for no other reason than the fact that she struggles against and succeeds in overcoming the smothering nature of the film. Undergoing a rather unimaginative rendition of a hero’s journey, Wasikowska imbues Alice with dauntlessness and dignity, so much so that amidst the sheer ridiculousness of the film’s finale, the character still works. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Helena Bonham-Carter and Anne Hathaway are both equally dreadful for different reasons, the former for failing where Wasikowska succeeds and the latter for simply going off the deep end with her White Queen.

Alice In Wonderland is a wash. Unlike Burton’s previous effort, there’s almost nothing redeeming in this film that could lead me to recommend it save for the lead performance and supporting performances, and as much as those stand out they are completely outnumbered by the machinations of Burton’s insubstantial direction. There’s almost no other conclusion to make about Burton as an artist other than to declare that he no longer exists; in his stead we have just a facsimile more interested in the value of his name rather than the worth of his creations.

Am I being overdramatic? Possibly. But is the film really that bad? Absolutely.

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5 thoughts on “Review: Alice In Wonderland, 2010, dir. Tim Burton

  1. I didn’t hate Alice in Wonderland quite as much as you, but I can see when you’re coming from. It’s like Burton took a classic vintage car, stripped the body, replaced the engine with a “Lord of the Rings” model and replaced the bodywork with his own distinctive style. Very little of it felt like Alice, to be honest, it felt like a generic “Disney wants a fantasy franchise NOW!” film.

    • That pretty much sums it up. This isn’t Burton’s vision of Alice so much as the result of a cruel experiment where elements from and characteristics of different films were fused to a story that they share no congruity with. Very disappointing.

    • I was honestly excited for this film at first; Burton and Alice In Wonderland seem like a natural fit, but the Burton of today isn’t the Burton that we all know and love. The first trailer for this movie really, really put me off, and as much as I went in with hopes that it would turn out to surprise me and be really good…well, you know the rest.

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