A film review by Craig J. Koban March 11, 2010


2010, PG, 108 mins.


Mad Hatter: Johnny Depp / Alice: Mia Wasikowska / Red Queen: Helena Bonham Carter / White Queen: Anne Hathaway / Knave: Crispin Glover 

And the voices of:

Caterpillar: Alan Rickman / Cheshire Cat: Stephen Fry / White Rabbit: Michael Sheen / Bayard: Timothy Spall / Jabberwocky: Christopher Lee

Directed by Tim Burton / Written by Linda Woolverton, based on the books Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll.


Lewis Carroll’s 1865 literary classic ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND has been adapted, in one form or another, so many times that I’ve lost track over the years.  Arguably, the most notable version is the cheery and pleasurable 1951 Disney animated effort.  Adult readers of Carroll’s original work always seem to respond to its satirical energy and twisted undertones.  The book is, after all, about a little girl that gets whisked away to a strange and fantastical universe where its denizens essentially toy her.  As a child I never once thought that young Alice’s trip would actually be enjoyable in the slightest: what would be enjoyable about being a teased victim in a strange and ominous world permeated by a menagerie of ghastly creatures?  

Because of the classic’s devilishly warped tone, it’s no wonder why director Tim Burton – a filmmaker that has always leaned towards the strange, offbeat, and forebodingly atmospheric - would feel right at home adapting Carroll’s most famous work.  Those expecting a tight and faithful appropriation of the source material may be in for major disappointment, seeing as Burton and his screenwriter Linda Woolverton (who also penned THE LION KING and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) have taken great liberties with transposing this tale to the big screen.  Alice, for example, is no longer a young and bright-eyed child protagonist and is now pushing adulthood, and her overall story owes a considerable amount more to other films like RETURN TO OZ and HOOK, the latter film which dealt with an adult Peter Pan suffering from mid-life amnesia about his past as a swashbuckler hero.  Oftentimes, Woolverton’s script for this revisionist ALICE has a more than fleeting resemblance to Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film.

Yet, making what’s essentially a sequel to Carroll’s first ALICE classic (while amalgamating it with another of his books, THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS) is not this film’s failing, nor is its blustery and admirably creative visual design (Burton is, if anything, a vivaciously inspired film artist, and this film is a luxurious and eye catching feast of color and design).  Burton’s eye for creating this celluloid version of Wonderland is undeniably affectionate and magical, blending both live action and CGI imagery to create an atmosphere that feels both gleefully tangible and hauntingly unreal at the same time.  His Wonderland is a place to behold and invest in, but too much of this ALICE IN WONDERLAND postures to the audience: Great care and pains have been taken here to create an opulent, candy cane hued world of ethereal delights, but the sheer craftsmanship of the film overwhelms everything else.  The performers within this world seem smothered by it and, for the most part, the soul, humanity, and charm of the actors become lost along the way.  Emotional connection to the story and characters becomes almost an afterthought here to the film’s immersive technological sheen. 

One aspect of the new story that I did thoroughly enjoy was its bookended sequences, which shows a more mature, poised, and fiercely independent Alice (played by Australian newcomer, Mia Wasikowska).  She is now a 19-year-old Victorian lass that finds herself in a real personal dilemma.  Her snobby and stubbornly aristocratic friends and family are working overtime to see that she is essentially handed off to Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill) in what is clearly an arranged marriage.  Like all Victorian-era feminists, she see absolutely no future with this pompous and emotionless twit, but she also feels suffocated by the social norms of the time and her parent’s lofty expectations.  Just as she is about to be wed off to Ascot, she sees a pesky little rabbit that certainly does not feel of this earth that coaxes her to follow it. 

Of course, "White Rabbit" (voiced by Michael Sheen) is most definitely not of this earth and it leads Alice to its hole that, yup, is portal into the magical Wonderland, which clearly is a form of escape from the reality of her current situation.  However, much like the aging Peter Pan's faulty memories of Neverland in HOOK, Alice does not seem to have any recollections of her childhood visits to Wonderland, and when she encounters its bizarre creatures and personas, she fails to recall all previous encounters and insists to herself that it’s all just a horrible dream.  She is guided on her new journey by many recognizable figures of Carroll’s literary canon, like the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), the blue caterpillar Absolem (Alan Rickman), Twiddledee and Twiddledum (Matt Lucas), and, of course, The Mad Hatter himself (Johnny Depp), all of which befriend her and gradual reveal what her purpose is during her visit.  It has been “written” that she will battle for the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) against her vile and repulsive sister, The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and defeat the dreaded, dragon-like Jabberwocky (voiced with villainous zeal by the great Christopher Lee).  Alice, of course, can’t see herself slaying a monster, but the longer she stays in Wonderland and sees what a despotic grip that the Red Queen has over it, she begins to assert herself in ways that she never thought possible. 

ALICE IN WONDERLAND is thoroughly alive as an imaginative visual spectacle, and Burton is certainly up to the task of making films that effortlessly blend sinister imagery with a subversive tongue-in-cheek and light-hearted joviality.  As always, the kooky and offbeat director’s eye for the peculiar is always jubilantly on display in every pore if this film.  Yet, there is no denying that the script built around all of the stunning imagery is flat, dull, and uninspired.  There is not much of an overall narrative to be had in ALICE AND WONDERLAND; too much of the time it feels likes its spinning its wheels from one extravagant set piece to the next, which has the negative repercussion of making the journey of watching the film feel more joyless and tedious than it should have been. 

Regrettable too are the usage of the actors as fundamentally cartoonish props in the film: I absolutely marveled at the look of the characters themselves: The Red Queen, with her bobblehead-like appearance, is sinister and silly at the same time, and the slimy Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) is a suitably menacing figure.  The sage-like Absolem the Caterpillar and the smooth taking Cheshire cat are engaging visuals too, as is the presence of the Mad Hatter, with his piercingly colorful eyes, carrot top mane of hair, and preposterously demented fashion sense.  All of these characters are great to watch, but the performers feel like they’re more of less posing in their costumes than inhabiting intriguing characters. 

Most of the voice talent behind the CG creations are finely tuned, but the more notable actors appearing on screen are a real disappointment.  Helena Bonham Carter screams her lines with a shrill repetitiveness over and over again that becomes more grating as the film progresses, and newcomer  Wasikowska – with her exquisite porcelain figurine beauty that bares a striking resemblance to a young Gwyneth Paltrow – is a luminous and appealing screen presence, but she has little charm and vitality as the older Alice.  She has a wonderfully understated drollness in her bookended scenes where she attempts to subvert her family’s influence on her (she would be pitch perfect in any Jane Austin film), but once she hits Wonderland she lacks feistiness and dynamism.  Much like most of the other human personas in the dream world, she seems stunted and subdued by the cavalcade of storybook imagery. 

The real disappointment, however, is Johnny Depp himself as the Hatter, which should have been another home run for the actor that has been so fiendishly good at inhabiting grotesquely oddball creations.  Certainly, Depp helps to elevate the Hatter’s unhinged, bizzaro vitality, but there is not much of an actual character lurking beneath all of the makeup, wardrobe, and mannerisms.  Even when Depp does speak his accent is an onerous hodgepodge of English and Scottish that it makes his words borderline indistinguishable.  Regrettably, the Hatter here is a poorly drawn character, and one that certainly does not allow the actor inhabiting him to fully stretch and make the role memorably his; compared to the limitlessly flamboyant and seditious cheekiness of Captain Jack Sparrow, Depp’s Hatter barely commands our interest and attention.   

There are other problems with the film, especially a climatic showdown between Alice and the Jabberwocky that seems more like rejected deleted scene from a CHRONICLES OF NARNIA entry that a suitable addition to Carroll’s universe.  Also, Disney’s insistence on releasing the film in 3D was a good idea that has been improperly handled.  Unlike AVATAR, which was filmed using 3D cameras to superlative, jaw-dropping success, ALICE IN WONDERLAND was filmed 2D and then converted to 3D, a lamentable trend that AVATAR, for better or worse, has started.  After recently screening AVATAR and now seeing ALICE IN WONDERLAND, the upconverted 3D process and its inherent limitations and flaws really become noticeable: images are oftentimes fuzzy and indistinct, colors are horribly muted (which works against the lush palette of the film), and fast action is too often an indistinguishable blur.  Of course, the only motive for Disney to convert the film is a pathetic cash grab in the wake of  AVATAR’s record-breaking success.  It has recently been reported that the upcoming CLASH OF THE TITANS will be also upconverted as well, and if this is the “revolution” in moviemaking that its owed to James Cameron’s Oscar winning efforts, then I fear it’s a dubious and disconcerting one.  All AVATAR seems to be doing is inspiring a lot of pale and cost effective imitators, and 3D converted efforts like ALICE IN WONDERLAND leave a lot to be desired.   

This leaves one conclusion: The only way to do a 3D film is to shoot it in 3D; adding the effect later is almost akin to colorizing black and white films.  This leaves me more than a bit concerned about the future of movies.  I am sure that Burton’s vision of ALICE IN WONDERLAND would be a finer visual experience in a 2D presentation, where one would not be distracted by the muted tones and hazy imagery.  Nonetheless, no theatrical presentation could completely rectify the film’s problems: The sights are innovative and intoxicating, but Carroll’s legendary characters and story seemed curiously stunted and marginalized.  Burton’s Wonderland is high on its hypnotic, dreamlike power, but so much so that the film feels more manufactured than wondrous.  As a result, there seems to be little need to travel down this cinematic rabbit hole.

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