Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Alice in Wonderland marks the 7th collaboration between director Tim Burton and actor Johnny Depp, but it also marks the first foray into 3D for Burton. The film itself has been anticipated for quite some time now, understandable considering its near-150 year old source material. Lewis Carroll’s story has of course been adapted to the big screen many times over, the most famous being the 1951 animated feature by Walt Disney. Burton’s film is not a remake or retelling of that film; instead, like 1991’s Hook, it fashions itself as a sort of grown-up sequel.

In this film, it is established that Alice did visit Wonderland as a child. But it is now 13 years later, and the 19-year old Alice has no recollection of her past adventures in this other world (in this regard, it’s actually very similar to Hook). After an atrociously boring segment showing Alice’s stifling present life in 19th century England, she once again is led down the rabbit hole into the magical world of “Underland”.

Yes, Underland. Burton has taken the liberty of renaming all of the characters in this world from their simplistic names of yesteryear into much more complicated and mythical-sounding derivatives. Case in point: The Cheshire Cat is now Chessur. Sorry, that’s not a good enough example. The Mad Hatter is now Tarrant Hightopp, and the White Rabbit is now Nivens McTwisp. These names, occasionally resembling Latin, may evoke another fantastical land, that of Narnia. If the names don’t, the plot certainly will.

Alice has been recruited to stop the reign of the evil Red Queen and help the White Queen become ruler again. To do this, she must slay the evil Jabberwocky with the Vorpal sword (both of these things taken from Carroll’s nonsensical poem, Jabberwocky). While this may not necessarily sound like a bad storyline, the film fails extraordinarily in its execution.

Alice jumps from point to point as if she were in some simplistic video game. She is confronted with a number of challenges, but they’re all solved so immediately and simply that they barely count as conflicts. Whether old McTwisp conveniently has a piece of cake for her to nom on, or the dangerous beast guarding the sword is easily wooed and tamed by its missing eyeball, not a single problem is ever given time to simmer. The result is an excruciating lack of excitement in the movie. Alice never seems like she’s actually in danger, and thus, the audience never really has to care about her.

Burton is known for his stylized and dark worlds, and his Wonderland is no different. In fact, the setting of the film is one of its best aspects. It offers a number of interesting things to look at, whether they’re literal dragonflies, a moat full of floating heads, or the impressive armies of cards and chess pieces that the two queens deploy to battle. Surprisingly, however, the 3D is not used well. It’s likely the result of the way the film was made – it was shot in 2D, then converted to 3D later, probably after Avatar made such a huge impact on the industry. Regardless, this is one 3D movie that you don’t need to see in 3D. Save the possible headache and check it in old-fashioned 2D.

The characters and acting talent are a mixed bag. The highlight of the film is Helena Bonham Carter. I was worried that her casting was simply nepotism on Burton’s part, but she really is the best woman for the job. She was delightfully tyrannical every scene she was in, and even though I initially thought the character design looked bad, I grew to appreciate her oversized noggin and the jokes it produced. I only wish her character had been given more to say than “Off with their heads” over and over, but I suppose it was one staple of the original tale that Burton decided to retain.

Mia Wasikowska plays Alice appropriately, though her character is not given much to do besides remain in a constant state of wonder. I found it particularly annoying and unnecessary that she kept thinking that she was dreaming, even after the Doormouse (sorry, “Mallymkun” – how the hell do you even pronounce that?) stabbed her in the foot. It seems like critics have been coming down harshly on Anne Hathaway, but personally I enjoyed her performance as the White Queen. She was comically elegant, floating in and out of every frame with exaggerated grace.

The trailers made it seem like this would be a Johnny Depp-centric film, but luckily that wasn’t the case – if it was, the movie would have been far worse. Depp phones in one of his worst performances to date, officially becoming too comfortable with the role of “quirky and scatter-brained guy”. His accent falls in and out of a Gerard Butler-sounding Scottish growl, and he doesn’t even attempt to make his character consistent in mood either. Yes, I know he’s the Mad Hatter, but he’s still a fluid character that’s supposed to exist across the entire movie at once. Instead, Depp seems to reinvent his character every scene.

The bit characters are mostly good. On the upside is Alan Rickman as the voice of “Absolem” (the hookah-smoking caterpillar, now made into some sort of dying spiritual leader) and the very surprisingly adorable and entertaining “Tweedle” brothers (played by Matt Lucas, and uniquely retaining their original names). Chessur, voiced by Stephen Fry, was also a highlight in his few scenes. On the downside is Crispin Glover as the most generic evil henchman of the year, and the annoying recalcitrant Mallymkun.

The visual effects are great, as to be expected, and the movie is mildly entertaining. Though the action sequences are disappointingly bland, the humor works, and the re-imagining of Wonderland is definitely worth checking out. It’s sad that the elements of this interesting world are presented through such a thin plot that never succeeds in engagement.

Determine if you should see this based on what you look for in a film. If you just like eye candy, or are a huge Tim Burton fan, you’ll probably have a good time. If you’re hoping for a good story, you will not find it here. Alice in Wonderland is in dire need of focus. It is a film with some really fantastic parts that sadly never add up to a worthwhile whole.

Final rating: 5.5/10

–James A. Janisse





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