(by Dustin Putman
Tim Burton, once a visionary, can't-miss filmmaker whose quirkiness was consistently matched by his originality and dark style, has in the last decade resorted time and again to adaptations and inferior remakes over innovative ideas. Did he run out of new stories to tell? For every grand success he has more recently had (2007's "Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street"), there seems to also be a cinematic miscalculation (2005's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") or an outright failure (2001's "Planet of the Apes") in his repertoire. Burton's latest, a quasi-sequel revisionist take on Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Alice Through the Looking Glass," is a regretful dud, a fantasy without magic and very little heart and soul. Looking like an overblown cable movie without the money to do the visuals justice, the nonetheless big-budget "Alice in Wonderland" has no excuse for how uninspired and even tacky it looks, throttling live-action with cartoonish CGI effects that never suitably create a specific or believably fantastical world. On top of that, the 3-D added to the picture in post-production for theatrical distribution is useless, the lighting of each frame dimmed by the glasses viewers have to wear. Thus, this causes the technical specs to appear all the more unrefined. The screenplay by Linda Woolverton, full of half-imagined, underdeveloped characters and a dreary plot that drifts far away from what author Carroll must have had in mind, is of no help, either. Too often the proceedings appear to be running on autopilot, at odds with a wraparound story that, despite the torpid eighty minutes in between, is surprisingly emotional and affecting. Article continues below
As a child of six, Alice Kingsleigh (Mairi Ella Challen) spoke of a recurring dream she kept having, of a world called Wonderland, of talking dogs and dormouses. Thirteen years later, a now-grown Alice (Mia Wasikowska), living in turn-of-the-century England, is a young woman pushing twenty who discovers a party thrown with all of her family and friends present is but a ruse for weak-chinned Lord Hamish (Leo Bill) to propose to her. Alice, still with a lot of life to live before she settles down and resorts to the suffocating conventional social mores of her time and place, dodges the question to run after a waistcoat-wearing, pocketwatch-carrying white rabbit she spots on the property. Following him into a dark hole, Alice loses her grip and ends up in Underland, a foreboding place ruled over by the bulbous-headed Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Alice's old friends—Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), and the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), among others—have intentionally called upon her as their savior to overthrow the monstrous Jabberwocky and, thus, the Red Queen's reign. Alice, however, cannot remember them from childhood, and there is the question of whether or not she is the same girl whose fate it has always been to fight evil in the name of their freedom. Slowly but surely, her destiny—not only in Underland, but in the real world—reveals itself.
The opening scenes of "Alice in Wonderland" set the film up as a British period piece, with the free-thinking Alice standing as the one wayward element with more contemporary ideals. The character, not taking things too seriously even as she realizes she is being pushed into a position she has no interest in, is a breath of fresh air, and her conflicts—both inward and outward—boil down to what those around her expect of a lady of nineteen. The appearance of the white rabbit, urging Alice to follow him as he taps his watch, urgently signifies how Alice's time as a child, unfortunate though it may be, is running out. That Alice stays true to herself at every turn thereafter and doesn't lose the dreamer—or the adventurer—inside her is a message for viewers to savor and take heed of. If director Tim Burton is able to find a certain amount of moralistic pathos in these bookending sequences—upon turning down Hamish's proposal, Alice reassures Lord Ascott (Tim Pigott-Smith) that she will "find something useful" to do with her life—then that is all the better for him. Alas, it also invites comparison to the central chunk of time set in Underland, which is as poorly written and conceived as the prologue and epilogue are poignant.
Alice's first proper glimpse of Underland comes with the opening of a door, recalling a similar scene in 1939's "The Wizard of Oz" when Dorothy steps out from the black-and-white confines of her farmhouse and into the Technicolor-fused Munchkinland. That moment is as enchanting as just about any in film history, and "Alice in Wonderland" should have at least approached that same sense of wonder. Instead, Alice opens the door on garish, fakey surroundings—computer effects lazily replacing a palpable setting that you can feel and touch. Other characters, like the Red Queen's short body and large head, or the Knave of Hearts' (Crispin Glover) elongated, lanky frame, are partially made up on a computer themselves, their jerky movements not once selling them as anything but. Aesthetically cheesy and spatially undefined, a subpar rendering of Middle Earth or Oz, the movie never transcends what it is: spare human beings hanging out in front of a green screen. In today's day and age of technological breakthroughs, there is no rationalization for the $200-million-plus "Alice in Wonderland" resembling Sy-Fy Channel's "Tin Man." Even the 1985 miniseries of "Alice in Wonderland" (featuring an all-star cast) had a superior production design, art direction, and costumes. As for the effects, they may have mostly been practical and low-tech, but they were also more crafty and ingenious.
Mia Wasikowska (2009's "Amelia") is a joy as Alice, effortlessly expressive as she becomes an uncanny representation of what the classic Alice might be like as a late-teenager. She is particularly effervescent during the involving opening and closing segments, while for the rest of it her natural charms get lost in a tornado of weirdoes, scenery-chewers, and oddball creatures. No one Alice meets on her journey is as memorable or charming as director Tim Burton positions them to be. Johnny Depp (2009's "Public Enemies"), wearing a frizzy orange wig and switching accents as fast as a, well, mad hatter, gets too much screen time and hasn't a firm grasp on his wonky role. As the Red Queen, Helena Bonham Carter (2009's "Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince") screams a lot and pouts like a toddler while looking like all she would need is Depp's wig to complete her clown costume. Anne Hathaway (2010's "Valentine's Day") literally glides her way through the part of the White Queen, taking her own etherealness to the brink while attaining a certain creepiness in her own right. Crispin Glover (2007's "Epic Movie") shows promise and potential intensity as the Knave of Hearts, the Red Queen's henchman, but not enough development to match the actor's serious approach to the role. Voicing such CG creations as the Cheshire Cat, the Blue Caterpillar, the March Hare, the Dormouse, etc. are a cast of veteran Brit actors who deserve better than they get. Every one of these well-established literary characters has been better used in past iterations of the story; here, they really don't do much or carve out their own individuality.
The third act of "Alice in Wonderland" improves, if only slightly, with the double confrontation between the Red and White Queens, as well as an armor-wearing Alice vs. the Jabberwocky. This is nothing like the Lewis Carroll novels and highly derivative of the "Harry Potter" and "The Chronicles of Narnia" series', but for a few fleeting minutes the fantasy portion of the movie energizes itself and all aspects of production come together as they should have all along. Go figure the one action set-piece works, since the story is paper-thin, the supporting ensemble are disposable, the pacing is slow and turgid, and where there should be whimsy is only indifference.
Empty spectacle that doesn't even work well as spectacle (especially in the low-rent 3-D theatrical version), "Alice in Wonderland" leaves one feeling disappointed at the pilfered opportunity of all involved. Since director Tim Burton is at the helm, he deserves the brunt of the blame. The passion he can be counted on to ignite his projects with—even the lesser ones—is simply not in evidence here, the effort coming off as a halfhearted work-for-hire gig. Furthermore, while it is okay to bring one's own sensibilities to an adaptation, why use such an iconic title as "Alice in Wonderland" if the plan is to twist and change the narrative to the point of almost disrespecting the source material? Beginning and ending with a tart bolt of coming-of-age existentialism the rest of the film is in desperate need of, the picture's bread-and-butter in Underland (why, again, change the name?) is, indeed, but a dream: hazy, rambling, undistinguished, and easily forgotten. Staying awake would be preferable.