Alice in Wonderland – Film Review

Posted on 05. Mar, 2010 by Administrator in Film/TV

by Todd Gilchrist

A few years ago I would have described Tim Burton and Alice in Wonderland as a perfect pairing of director and material; even without intimate familiarity with the source material, his pedigree as a purveyor of mainstream fantasy is largely unrivaled, and there’s no doubt his visual sense could reinvigorate (if not fully reimagine) Lewis Carroll’s book for contemporary audiences. But Burton, champion of the outsider and documentarian of the underdog, somehow became a Hollywood fixture - a hit-making machine, except when he seemed to follow his heart, as he did with the beautiful box office failure Big Fish.

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Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter

As a result, his efforts to stay outside of the industry’s comfort zone have felt like they’re as provocative or peculiar as the sale rack as Hot Topic; he’s tackled one conventional “weird” project after another, and with few exceptions, they’ve all failed to surpass their source material, or even show why he’s a good choice to adapt or reinvent them, except for the automatic opening-weekend returns. Sadly, Alice follows in this disappointing trend, revealing Burton at his most automatically, reliably counterculture, creating a new story out of Carroll’s mythmaking that fails to inspire interest, perhaps except as a rote exercise in mainstream weirdness.

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Mia Wasikowska in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

Luminous newcomer Mia Wasikowska plays Alice, who gets stuck in an unrecognizable Wonderland after tumbling down a rabbit hole while escaping a would-be suitor and a life of boredom and complacency. Soon enough, she happens upon Carroll’s cavalcade of weirdos, including the March Hare (Michael Sheen), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Tweedles Dee and Dum (Matt Lucas), and of course, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who is shellshocked from a combination of personal trauma and sniffing too much hat glue. But when she discovers she’s a key player in a turf war between the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), Alice muscles up to help her new comrades, in the process discovering a sense of direction for her life as well.

Admittedly I’m not familiar with either of the Carroll books (Alice and Through the Looking Glass) from which Burton took his inspiration, but screenwriter Linda Woolverton effectively turned them into a sort of condensed Lord of the Rings-style travelogue odyssey, a quest where Alice learns life lessons after slaying foes both physical and metaphorical. While this certainly isn’t an inherently bad thing, Burton fails to provide any reason why we should care about what happens, since Alice reminds us at every turn that it’s a dream, and there don’t seem to be any real stakes even if it wasn’t.

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Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen

Furthermore, there’s a leaden sort of melodrama that accompanies much of the character development (the Mad Hatter’s past, etc.) and eliminates the fun and excitement of just being goofy and weird and having a frothy adventure. That said, such exuberance is at least hinted at in the performance of Carter as the Red Queen, who’s introduced to us interrogating her (literal) toadies and then turns to mouth-frothing grandstanding as she tries to keep her head while chopping of virtually everyone else’s. But Depp’s turn as the Hatter falls into scenery-chewing territory early and never returns, and with the exception of Fry’s seductively charming Cheshire Cat and Hathaway’s prissy, exasperatedly serene White Queen, the cast adds little new to the existing landscape of these characters on screen.

But this is Burton’s show, and even though he appears to be indulging every impulse he knows to create a compelling Wonderland, there’s just nothing in it to truly inspire or arouse interest. Even the film’s 3-D feels flat and dim, lending what should be a breathtaking fantasy world a melancholy, joyless air. And that’s really the difference between Burton the purveyor of spectacle and the former filmmaker who toiled meticulously making heroes out of oddballs: there’s no exuberance, either on screen or seemingly behind the camera, in rendering a universe where the least likely person in it becomes its biggest hero. As such, Alice isn’t truly terrible, but spectacularly underwhelming, and may ultimately leave you questioning where the ‘wonder’ is in Wonderland.

Rating: star Alice in Wonderland – Film Reviewhalfstar Alice in Wonderland – Film Reviewblankstar Alice in Wonderland – Film Reviewblankstar Alice in Wonderland – Film Reviewblankstar Alice in Wonderland – Film Review  1 1/2 out of 5 Stars

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