Saturday, March 20, 2010

Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

STARRING: Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska Helena Bonham Carter and Crispin Glover

Despite it's huge haul at the box office, one of the most anticipated films of 2010 is also one of its biggest duds.

Tim Burton's disappointingly dull re-imagining of the famous Lewis Carroll story, Alice in Wonderland suffers from extreme bouts of boredom and poor script pacing.

Alice (Aussie newcomer Mia Wasikowska) is much older, but none the wiser, in Burton's Wonderland sequel. Now nineteen years old and expected to marry, Alice once again falls down that crazy rabbit hole and into a world fantasy and violence. She can't recall her first time spent in Wonderland as a child and brushes off her current adventures as nothing more than an outlandish dream. Along the way she reunites with old friends, specifically the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who informs her that the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) leaves behind destruction and death wherever she goes. Alice is expected to slay a dragon (?!) and help the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) regain the throne she lost to the Red Queen after an epic battle.

Despite everything just mentioned, there actually isn't any discernible plot. Burton and his screenwriters have taken bits and pieces from both of Carroll's books and strung them together into little vignettes which amount to nothing of any significance. Alice still takes a drink from a bottle and grows in size. She still meets up with the Mad Hatter in the midst of a tea party. But why replay these scenes if this film is to be treated as a sequel? Despite the subplots of having to slay a dragon and aide the White Queen, Alice in Wonderland does very little during its two hour running time. The pace is so leisurely that it quickly becomes boring; something is never recovers from.

The much ballyhooed 3D amounts to nothing. Unlike James Cameron's Avatar, which made full use of its CGI and 3D technology, Alice in Wonderland pales in comparison. The 3D effects are so poorly utilized it's easy to forget you aren't just watching it in normal 2D.

Tim Burton's lavish sets (often inspired by his love for the German Expressionist films of the 1920's) are lacking due to the largely CGI-created visuals. The unique visual style Burton so often brings to his modern fables is missing here. Instead of dark, ominous corridors (Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street), structurally inept houses (Beetlejuice) and dark, threatening skies (Batman, Sleepy Hollow), we get a computer-animated world that bears no resemblance to the Burton films we know and love. One of the charms of Burton's films are his set designs and the fact that he rarely relies heavily on CGI. Too much green screen and so few actual props and sets makes for an unimaginative and an un-Burtonesque film.

Burton excels at bringing out the humanity in every quirk and weirdo in his films. Alice in Wonderland is full of these types of characters. What Wonderland lacked, more than anything, was that human touch that Burton so charmingly brought to life with his unique characters in Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood.

As Alice, Wasikowska is a bore. There is no reason to root for Alice or to even worry about her character's fate. She moves through each scene in a charming blue dress, with little to do or say. Granted, the script gave Wasikowska little to work with, however, she wasn't able to rise above the drudge and create a feisty heroine. Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter is given little to do. It's as though Burton decided to rely solely on giving Mad Hatter a strange costume and CGI-enlargened eyes; as though that would be enough to make everyone rave about Depp and the film. It would have been more effective had Burton and Depp conspired to make Mad Hatter a genuinely unhinged character; someone who wanted to help Alice while also making sure that his Wonderland maintained an air of lunacy. It seemed as though Depp was just going through the motions. Three excellent British actors (Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit and Alan Rickman as the Blue Caterpillar)are all wasted in small speaking roles that are given such a tiny amount of screen time that their roles are rendered pointless.

The two standouts are the always reliable Helena Bonham Carter as the ranting and raving Red Queen and the wonderfully oddball Crispin Glover as her eye-patched henchman, Stayne.

What once seemed like an ideal pairing (Burton and Carroll) has instead become a major disappointment. Instead of a dark, dangerous and terrifying Wonderland for adults and teens, we get, at best, a mediocre children's film. Burton has such a strong resume that it's doubtless that he will bounce back and recover with a better film. Here's hoping he goes back to his roots doing what he does best: making Tim Burton films.



  1. I wonder if the Burton / Depp pairing has "jumped the shark." Seems like they have embraced style and abandoned substance. Ed Scissorhands was minimalist in special effects but packed with depth and poignancy ... and plot!

  2. Welcome back - I was about to send out a search party for ya due to lack of posts!

    I must argue with your criticism of the overall narrative. While admittedly flawed, much of the story arc was pulled from the Jabberwocky poem in "Through the Looking Glass". While the adaptation isn't completely sound structurally, it does still have a better flow than either of the books (Wonderland/Looking Glass), which not only felt like a series of disjointed moments, but also lacked a natural climax and conclusion.

    I just re-read the books prior to the film, so a lot of the story was pretty fresh in my mind.

    That said, I'm feeling like I was one of the very few who dug this (admittedly flawed) film. If you're curious, I talked about it in episode eight of my podcast.

    Welcome back - keep the movie posts coming, yes?

  3. Agreed, dark_edgy_girl! I think they need to separate for awhile.

    Mad Hatter: Have I been gone that long? I did that favourite movie scene entry...two weeks ago. ;)

    I do love a good argument. I've never read anything regarding Alice. My only familiarity with the story is through the Disney film, so I can't really say anything about the story being structurally sound. That's interesting, though, that you say it's better than the book itself.

  4. So I am randomly jumping in here weeks after you posted this review but... whatever. I completely agree with every single point you made in this review. I think I might have liked the film more than you did, but the "plot" (if you could call it that) was a complete snoozefest. I was surprised by how much I did like the visuals, but this film lacked the warmth or verve usually given to Burton's characters. This was a film with nothing really to say and empty shells for characters.

    As for the books, they aren't supposed to have a plot. To complain about a lack of coherant plot in either of the Alice books is to completely miss the point. They are a string of events used as vehicles for subversive social commentary and clever word play (which is part of the reason the Alice story loses something in translation from book to film).

  5. I welcome comments, regardless of how late they are! :)

    It was such a bore. I still can't believe it was a Burton film. It just completely lacked the proper feel found in pretty much everything else he has ever made. I pretty much wanted to take my mind of the crap that was Alice and I watched Ed Wood last month (hence the random Edward D. Wood Hollywood Profile post, haha).

    I think he and Depp need a break.

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