Tim Burton and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland sounds like a match made in heaven. Burton’s history of quirky fantasy seems particularly suited to the story of a contrary girl dropped into an even-more-contrary dreamland. Unfortunately, Burton was all out of dark whimsy years ago, and his Alice in Wonderland is little more than a reminder that this movie is a decade too late.
In this re-imagining, twenty-year-old Alice, uncomfortable marrying the distasteful Hamish, runs away from her surprise-engagement party and falls down the rabbit hole, where she’s greeted as an old friend by creatures she doesn’t remember and is told she must fight the Jabberwocky as prophecy foretold. Alice is surprised to hear this (as is anyone who’s read the books), but the movie insists, and so she zips through the starting lineup of familiar characters, races from set piece to set piece, hits the major coming-of-age beats in between fight scenes, and amasses allies on her way to the battle at movie’s end.
If this doesn’t sound like Alice, that’s because it’s not.
Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland retains its power in part because of its blithe take on the child-in-peril narrative; the story offers no way for Alice to achieve merit and escape – she simply floats through the bizarre landscape until she wakes. It’s a surreal chain of slightly mean-spirited vignettes; the anti-bildungsroman. Unfortunately, this Wonderland has been stripped of this unique sensibility. Now it has the trappings of every epic-fantasy world ever written, right down to a magic sword that can only be wielded by The Chosen Bearer, and its inhabitants are rational creatures only pretending to be mad to avoid entrapment by the despotic Red Queen.
You might be asking, “If you’re going to make a generic fantasyland full of normal people, why use Alice in Wonderland as your source material?” If you are asking that, you are probably me. Unfortunately, that question does not get answered. Sorry, me.
Granted, there are always elements from Alice books that don’t transition in a particular film. Unfortunately, the themes Burton left out were crucial, and there’s not nearly enough substance to replace them. The movie makes several feints at feminism, but in Wonderland it’s negated by the self-fulfilling prophecy, and in the real world it’s absurd. Maybe worse is that Alice’s cynical edge is swapped out with forced whimsy that falls egregiously flat (the Mad Hatter’s Futterwacken dance would shame the Shrek 3 writers).
The visuals don’t pick up the slack in bringing the movie to life, either. Burton’s aesthetic can be beautiful, often in dark and unusual ways that, under the right circumstances, could have made for a haunting Wonderland. However, he seems adrift amid the computer graphics, delivering a landscape that’s artificial without being surreal, and oddly generic considering how much of the movie bears the mark of overworked CG.
This artificial gloss extends even to the performances, which are almost all CG-enhanced. In certain cases, this can’t be helped (Alice becomes very small and very tall, and the effects here are well-handled so as to keep focus on Mia Wasikowska’s placid, grave performance). Unfortunately, Burton went overboard with effects where none were necessary, and in the process only highlights how separate the actors are from one another in an already-disjointed story.
Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter suffers the most from this; so many of his scenes are green-screened that he’s forced to be wacky into thin air, and there’s something threadbare about his manic-man-child performance. However, he’s far from the only casualty. Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts-cum-Stretch Armstrong is too plasticine to be menacing. (Why anyone needs to enhance Glover’s creepiness is beyond me.) The voice performances are diminished by unsatisfying renderings and hamfisted dialogue, but everyone works to transcend the material, especially Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman. The same can’t be said of Anne Hathaway as a White Queen who could have benefited from some computer interference; on the upside, if you’re desperate to know how the lovechild of Galadriel and Princess Giselle turned out, look no further.
The movie’s saving grace, and the exception that proves the rules, is Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, who rises above whatever green-screen she required and delivers a performance that almost singlehandedly saves the film’s middle third. Her performance is sublime – wry, arch, and touching. She’s in on the joke without becoming a caricature, and even in villainous moments she is by far the film’s most compelling character. Every moment she’s onscreen is to wish you’d seen the movie she thought she was in.
Sadly, that movie doesn’t exist, and this one is a poor substitute. By turns overwrought, frustrating, and cold, this Wonderland is too calculated to be curious, and too flat to be fantastic. Better luck next time, Alice.