A film review by Craig J. Koban March 11, 2010
ALICE IN WONDERLAND
2010, PG, 108 mins.
2010, PG, 108 mins.
Mad Hatter: Johnny Depp / Alice: Mia Wasikowska / Red Queen: Helena Bonham Carter / White Queen: Anne Hathaway / Knave: Crispin Glover
Carroll’s 1865 literary classic ALICE’S ADVENTURES IN WONDERLAND has
been adapted, in one form or another, so many times that I’ve lost track
over the years. Arguably, the
most notable version is the cheery and pleasurable 1951 Disney animated
effort. Adult readers of Carroll’s original work always seem to
respond to its satirical energy and twisted undertones.
The book is, after all, about a little girl that gets whisked away
to a strange and fantastical universe where its denizens essentially toy her. As a child I
never once thought that young Alice’s trip would actually be enjoyable
in the slightest: what would be enjoyable about being a teased victim in a
strange and ominous world permeated by a menagerie of ghastly creatures?
of the classic’s devilishly warped tone, it’s no wonder why director
Tim Burton – a filmmaker that has always leaned towards the strange,
offbeat, and forebodingly atmospheric - would feel right at home adapting
Carroll’s most famous work. Those
expecting a tight and faithful appropriation of the source material may be
in for major disappointment, seeing as Burton and his screenwriter Linda
Woolverton (who also penned THE LION KING and BEAUTY AND THE BEAST) have
taken great liberties with transposing this tale to the big screen.
Alice, for example, is no longer a young and bright-eyed child
protagonist and is now pushing adulthood, and her overall story owes a
considerable amount more to other films like RETURN TO OZ and HOOK, the latter film which dealt with an adult Peter Pan
suffering from mid-life amnesia about his past as a swashbuckler hero.
Woolverton’s script for this revisionist ALICE has a more than fleeting resemblance to
Steven Spielberg’s 1991 film.
making what’s essentially a sequel to Carroll’s first ALICE classic
(while amalgamating it with another of his books, THROUGH THE LOOKING
GLASS) is not this film’s failing, nor is its blustery and admirably
creative visual design (Burton is, if anything, a vivaciously inspired film artist,
and this film is a luxurious and eye
catching feast of color and design).
Burton’s eye for creating this celluloid version of Wonderland is
undeniably affectionate and magical, blending both live action and CGI
imagery to create an atmosphere that feels both gleefully tangible and
hauntingly unreal at the same time. His
Wonderland is a place to behold and invest in, but too much of this ALICE
IN WONDERLAND postures to the audience: Great care and pains have been
taken here to create an opulent,
candy cane hued world of ethereal delights, but the sheer craftsmanship of
the film overwhelms everything else.
The performers within this world seem smothered by it and, for the
most part, the soul, humanity, and charm of the actors become lost along
the way. Emotional connection
to the story and characters becomes almost an afterthought here to the
film’s immersive technological sheen.
aspect of the new story that I did thoroughly enjoy was its bookended
sequences, which shows a more mature, poised, and fiercely independent
Alice (played by Australian newcomer, Mia Wasikowska). She is now a 19-year-old
Victorian lass that finds herself in a real personal dilemma.
Her snobby and stubbornly aristocratic friends and family are
working overtime to see that she is essentially handed off to Hamish Ascot
(Leo Bill) in what is clearly an arranged marriage.
Like all Victorian-era feminists, she see absolutely no future with
this pompous and emotionless twit, but she also feels suffocated by the
social norms of the time and her parent’s lofty expectations.
Just as she is about to be wed off to Ascot, she sees a pesky
little rabbit that certainly does not feel of this earth that coaxes her
to follow it.
course, "White Rabbit" (voiced by Michael Sheen) is most definitely not
of this earth and it leads Alice to its hole that, yup, is
portal into the magical Wonderland, which clearly is a form of escape from
the reality of her current situation.
However, much like the aging Peter Pan's faulty memories of
Neverland in HOOK, Alice does not seem
to have any recollections of her childhood visits to Wonderland, and when
she encounters its bizarre creatures and personas, she fails
to recall all previous encounters and insists to herself that it’s all
just a horrible dream. She is
guided on her new journey by many recognizable figures of Carroll’s
literary canon, like the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), the blue
caterpillar Absolem (Alan Rickman), Twiddledee and Twiddledum (Matt Lucas), and, of course, The
Mad Hatter himself (Johnny Depp), all of which befriend her and gradual
reveal what her purpose is during her visit. It has been “written” that she will battle for the White
Queen (Anne Hathaway) against her vile and repulsive sister, The Red Queen
(Helena Bonham Carter) and defeat the dreaded, dragon-like Jabberwocky
(voiced with villainous zeal by the great Christopher Lee).
Alice, of course, can’t see herself slaying a monster, but the
longer she stays in Wonderland and sees what a despotic grip that the Red
Queen has over it, she begins to assert herself in ways that she never thought
IN WONDERLAND is thoroughly alive as an imaginative visual spectacle, and
Burton is certainly up to the task of making films that effortlessly blend
sinister imagery with a subversive tongue-in-cheek and
light-hearted joviality. As
always, the kooky and offbeat director’s eye for the peculiar is always jubilantly
on display in every pore if this film.
Yet, there is no denying that the script built around all of the
stunning imagery is flat, dull, and uninspired.
There is not much of an overall narrative to be had in ALICE AND
WONDERLAND; too much of the time it feels likes its spinning its wheels
from one extravagant set piece to the next, which has the negative
repercussion of making the journey of watching the film feel more joyless
and tedious than it should have been.
too are the usage of the actors as fundamentally cartoonish props in the
film: I absolutely marveled at the look of the characters
themselves: The Red Queen, with her bobblehead-like appearance, is
sinister and silly at the same time, and the slimy Knave of Hearts
(Crispin Glover) is a suitably menacing figure.
The sage-like Absolem the Caterpillar and the smooth taking Cheshire cat are
engaging visuals too, as is the presence of the Mad Hatter, with his
piercingly colorful eyes, carrot top mane of hair, and preposterously
demented fashion sense. All
of these characters are great to watch, but the performers feel like
they’re more of less posing in their costumes than
inhabiting intriguing characters.
of the voice talent behind the CG creations are finely tuned, but the more
notable actors appearing on screen are a real disappointment.
Helena Bonham Carter screams her lines with a shrill repetitiveness
over and over again that becomes more grating as the film progresses, and
newcomer Wasikowska – with
her exquisite porcelain figurine beauty that bares a striking resemblance to a young
Gwyneth Paltrow – is a luminous and appealing screen presence, but she
has little charm and vitality as the older Alice.
She has a wonderfully understated drollness in her bookended scenes
where she attempts to subvert her family’s influence on her (she would
be pitch perfect in any Jane Austin film), but once
she hits Wonderland she lacks feistiness and dynamism. Much like most of
the other human personas in the dream world, she seems stunted and subdued
by the cavalcade of storybook imagery.
real disappointment, however, is Johnny Depp himself as the Hatter, which
should have been another home run for the actor that has been so
fiendishly good at inhabiting grotesquely oddball creations.
Certainly, Depp helps to elevate the Hatter’s unhinged, bizzaro
vitality, but there is not much of an actual character lurking beneath all
of the makeup, wardrobe, and mannerisms.
Even when Depp does speak his accent is an onerous hodgepodge of
English and Scottish that it makes his words borderline indistinguishable.
Regrettably, the Hatter here is a poorly drawn character, and one
that certainly does not allow the actor inhabiting him to fully stretch
and make the role memorably his; compared to the limitlessly flamboyant and
seditious cheekiness of Captain Jack Sparrow, Depp’s Hatter barely commands our
interest and attention.
are other problems with the film, especially a climatic showdown between
Alice and the Jabberwocky that seems more like rejected deleted scene
from a CHRONICLES OF NARNIA
entry that a suitable addition to Carroll’s universe.
Also, Disney’s insistence on releasing the film in 3D was a good
idea that has been improperly handled.
Unlike AVATAR, which was filmed
using 3D cameras to superlative, jaw-dropping success, ALICE IN WONDERLAND
was filmed 2D and then converted to 3D, a lamentable trend that
AVATAR, for better or worse, has started.
After recently screening AVATAR and now seeing ALICE IN WONDERLAND,
the upconverted 3D process and its inherent limitations and flaws really
become noticeable: images are oftentimes fuzzy and indistinct, colors are
horribly muted (which works against the lush palette of the film),
and fast action is too often an indistinguishable blur.
Of course, the only motive for Disney to convert the film is a
pathetic cash grab in the wake of AVATAR’s record-breaking
success. It has recently been
reported that the upcoming CLASH OF THE TITANS will be also upconverted as
well, and if this is the “revolution” in moviemaking that its owed to
James Cameron’s Oscar winning efforts, then I fear it’s a dubious and
disconcerting one. All AVATAR
seems to be doing is inspiring a lot of pale and cost effective imitators,
and 3D converted efforts like ALICE IN WONDERLAND leave a lot to be
leaves one conclusion: The
only way to do a 3D film is to shoot it in 3D; adding the effect later
is almost akin to colorizing black and white films.
This leaves me more than a bit concerned about the future of
movies. I am sure that
Burton’s vision of ALICE IN WONDERLAND would be a finer visual
experience in a 2D presentation, where one would not be distracted by the
muted tones and hazy imagery. Nonetheless,
no theatrical presentation could completely rectify the film’s problems:
The sights are innovative and intoxicating, but Carroll’s legendary
characters and story seemed curiously stunted and marginalized.
Burton’s Wonderland is high on its hypnotic, dreamlike power, but
so much so that the film feels more manufactured than wondrous.
As a result, there seems to be little need to travel down this
cinematic rabbit hole.