Mia Wasikowska as Alice
Johnny Depp as The Mad Hatter
Helena Bonham Carter as The Red Queen
Crispin Glover as Stayne, the Knave of Hearts
Anne Hathaway as The White Queen
Stephen Fry as The Cheshire Cat
Michael Sheen as The White Rabbit
Alan Rickman as The Blue Caterpillar
Christopher Lee as The Jabberwocky
Barbara Windsor as The Dormouse
Paul Whiteouse as The March Hare
Matt Lucas as Tweedledum and Tweedledee
Michael Gough as the Dodo
Timothy Spall as the Bloodhound
Tim Burton is infuriating. He sums up pretty much all that is, or I should say can be, wrong with the modern film director. He is an undeniably gifted visual artist with the ability to make the whimsical look real. And he’s a good storyteller, when he’s got a good story to tell. But he is first and foremost inspired by his visuals, often letting them take over his movies. Which is the type of filmmaker Hollywood often goes for because movies are so obviously visual. But that’s not their end all and be all but Hollywood, and Burton, sometimes forget this.
The result is work that is often pretty but shallow and while that doesn’t completely sum up his attempt at Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland,” it’s not far off.
This Alice (Mia Wasikowska), rather than the young girl looking for a way to pass an afternoon, is a 19-year-old facing the prospect of marriage to a near-stranger with money and a life of having children and not much else. Facing those choices I’d probably follow a watch wielding rabbit (Michael Sheen) down a hole, too.
There’s nothing wrong with putting your own spin on a classic story. In fact, a lot of classic stories are crying out for modernizing or a little bit of re-working to fix problems with narrative flow or characterization. Carroll’s original “Alice” is a perfect example of this. Overflowing with imagination as it is, it’s also extremely episodic with little connecting the episodes and no particular conclusion. It just sort of stops.
So if Tim Burton wants to fix some of those narrative shortfalls while applying his considerable visual talents to a story that is already filled with iconic imagery, what could go wrong? It sounds like a perfect fit, and it looks like it at the beginning.
Alice’s venture into Underland is a technicolor dream that Disney and Sony Imagework’s 3D treatment exceptionally brings to life. She quickly bumps into many of the book’s most well-remembered sequences: the Drink Me shrinking potion and Eat Me growing cake; Tweedledee and Tweedledum (who actually come from the book’s sequel, but whatever); the smoking Caterpillar (Alan Rickman). But it’s not all the same. Alice, it seems, has been here before, even if she doesn’t remember it – part of the inhabitants’ desperate quest to find the right Alice at the right time who can defeat the Jabberwocky and free them from the tyranny of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).
Essentially what Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton (“Beauty and the Beast”) have done is jam the meandering, evocative “Wonderland” story together with the more typical Hero’s Journey adventure story Hollywood loves. It’s an ill-fit at best.
With the right kind of balancing act it might work, but Burton isn’t the director to massage “Alice’s” conflicting drives into some sort of workable finish. His main concern is the film’s visuals, and in the early going that’s all that’s really needed. The Red Queen’s absurd court with its frog and fish footmen, the Drink Me scene and the interaction with the Caterpillar are about as well-realized as you could imagine.
However, as the adventure side of the story takes over, starting somewhere around Alice’s meeting with the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), it becomes more and more ordinary and dull. Putting a new spin on “Alice” is all well and good, but trying to fit in a climactic battle sequence with the Mad Hatter sword fighting the Red Queen’s henchmen is a bit much. In fact, and it’s hard to believe, there is entirely too much Mad Hatter for “Alice’s” own good.
Depp is excellent in the role, the quirkiness plays to his strengths as an actor. Burton has gone to much of his regular entourage for “Alice” with general success. Actors like Depp and Bonham Carter know how to work with this kind of material and what Burton wants out of it and the result are fantastically realized fantasies. Bonham in particular has turned her giant headed, small minded Red Queen into a character of real bathos.
But none of this excellent work really goes anywhere. Or rather it goes somewhere we’ve all been before. There’s a lot of panache involved in getting there, but it can’t hide the fact that this “Wonderland” is sadly ordinary.