by Scott Mendelson
Expectations are a funny thing. Alice in Wonderland is not a good movie. It is, quite simply, a very bad and fatally misguided picture. But since I was not the first critic to see the film, I had the luxury of knowing that a director who I once worshiped had possibly out-and-out whiffed. Had I entered the theater expecting a picture equal to Sweeney Todd, I would have walked out devastated. But, expectations in check, I was able to appreciate the few things that went right with Burton's latest adventure, while being fully aware of how shallow and empty this latest exercise really is. But make no mistake, Alice in Wonderland is easily Tim Burton's worst film since Planet of the Apes, and its failures bring into question just what kind of filmmaker he wants to be in the next phase of his career.
A token amount of plot: This quasi-sequel to the original Alice in Wonderland novel concerns a 20-year-old Alice (a terrifically low-key and deviously seductive Mia Wasikowska), on the precipice of accepting an unwanted engagement to a connected young-gentleman. At the moment of said proposal, Alice is distracted by a strange anthropomorphic rabbit that seems to be gaming for her attention. History repeats itself and Alice again tumbles down the rabbit hole into the magical world of 'Underland'. But Underland is now a desolate, fire-scorched world ruled by the Red Queen. Alice does not remember her previous trip when she was a wee child, but apparently it is her destiny to return and make things right again. If this all sounds oddly familiar, it's probably because you've seen SyFy's recent miniseries Alice, as this plays as a faster-paced, and less intelligent variation on Nick Willing's modern-day variation.
Ironically, for all of the Burton-bashing that has greeted the arrival of said film, the real culprit is apparently screenwriter Linda Woolverton. Woolverton's screenplay is a rushed, emotionally hallow, and explicitly contradictory affair. The core of Alice's arc in this picture is that she is unhappy about having her life mapped out for her without her consent. Yet, the second she zooms into 'wonderland' (the nickname she gave the place as a young child), she is specifically told that she is destined to slay a giant dragon known as the Jabborwocky, which in turn will cause the Red Queen's followers to change sides and support the allegedly superior White Queen instead. At no point in the picture does Alice really have any real choice about her actions, which negates the whole story-arc.
Turning the warped adventures of Lewis Carroll's characters into a dumbed-down 'hero's journey' is depressing enough, but the overt predestination at work removes any sense of choice from Alice's adventure, as well as any kind of suspense from the narrative. And, since Alice believes right up to the finale that this is all just a dream, there is no real reason for her to fear for her life. The decision to frame this as a sequel is an odd one, as the fact that Alice has been to Wonderland before is absolutely irrelevant to the story. Even Steven Spielberg's Hook made better use of its 'classic hero returns to his childhood adventure' shtick, as uptight, grown-up Peter contrasted with everyone's memories of the merry, flying swordsman from decades earlier.
The actors are a mixed bag. Surprisingly, Johnny Depp (as the Mad Hatter) and Helena Bonham Carter (as the Red Queen) make an effort to give real performances. Neither of them is allowed to dominate the film and both chew far less scenery than you'd expect under the circumstances. Neither actors will put this on their highlight reel, but neither of them truly embarrasses themselves. Crispin Glover is as over-the-top as you'd expect, but his work is further stymied by the inexplicable choice to put his head onto a computer-generated-image of a very tall Knave of Hearts. As a result, all of his movements have that herky-jerky look that so often occurs with computer-animated 'live-action' characters. Anne Hathaway does very little as the White Queen, as she plays 90% of her scenes with her hands raised in the air, as if lowering them below her chest would incur punishment. Frankly, she seems as nutty in her own way as the Red Queen, so there's no real reason to root for her to reclaim her crown outside of a general disapproval of bloody coups. Of the talking animals, Alan Rickman shines brightest, even if his best scene is identical to his best moment in Dogma, where he must convince the chosen heroine to keep going by empathizing with her plight (needless to say, convincing Alice to kill a monster isn't nearly as emotionally powerful as explaining how it felt to tell a young Jesus what was in store for him).
The 3D conversion actually works best in the real-world prologue and epilogue, when it creates a genuinely immersive experience. But once the picture descends into fantasy, so much of what you see is so obviously fake, that you can't believe your eyes no matter what dimensions the image is in. The 3D is not terribly distracting, but it adds very little to the experience and is probably a large part of why the film's colors seem so muted and pale. Quite frankly, I sincerely wish this were available in 2D IMAX, so one could experience the best of both worlds. As it is, the moviegoer must now choose between crisper and bolder colors versus a larger, more all-encompassing image with eyesore potential. The visuals themselves are every bit as fantastical as $200 million can buy, but since so little of what we see ever feels real (couldn't have Burton used real dogs for the shots where the dogs don't talk?), there is no real sense of wonder at what we see.
In the end, this film is clearly a paycheck gig for Hollywood's most mainstream freak. While the main culprit is the assembly-line screenplay, Tim Burton is the director and must shoulder the blame for this genuinely uninvolving motion picture. This film could have been made by any number of less-talented directors, and there are few genuine Burton touches to be found (Danny Elfman's score is a lone highlight). Where Tim Burton goes from here is any one's guess. Steven Spielberg followed up Hook with Jurassic Park, which kicked off seventeen-years of some of the very best work of his career (Schindler's List, Saving Private Ryan, Catch Me If You Can, Munich, etc). We'll know soon enough whether or not, to paraphrase Batman Returns (his second-best film, behind Ed Wood), Tim Burton can once again become a genuine freak or whether he'll have to wear a mask for the rest of his career.