Every generation gets their Hook.
Actually, that’s a little bit of a facetious comparison. While Alice in Wonderland, like Hook, is a misguided and expensive sequel to a beloved children’s story, at least Steven Spielberg understood what it was that made Peter Pan tick. Watching Alice in Wonderland one can’t help but realize that the work of Lewis Carroll holds no place in the heart of Tim Burton, and that he probably doesn’t get any of it beyond the most superficial surface level.
Like Hook, Alice in Wonderland sees an older version of a classic character returning to old haunts and meeting up with old friends. For some reason the Alice in Wonderland script, by Linda Woolverton, keeps Alice utterly in the dark for the entire film. We know that she’s been to Wonderland before, the other characters know it, but bafflingly she doesn’t. And when she does remember, right at the end, it’s presented as some kind of big reveal. Huh? What makes it all the weirder is that the movie doesn’t always feel like a sequel to Lewis Carroll’s original work but some kind of weird echo, or a reboot. Characters drop famous audience identification lines from the original books, and they engage in activities that we recognize from previous adaptations, but these lines and these activities don’t seem to have a place here; they’re the Alice equivalent of a franchise throwing insipid fan service in the sixth film – a wink at the people who have been here all along.
But what’s the point of Alice not remembering anything? It’s just frustrating to spend the whole film so far ahead of your heroine; even if Alice had remembered everything from her childhood but thought she was dreaming throughout this current adventure it would have been more satisfying.
Well, sort of more satisfying. There’s little satisfying here, especially for anyone who has appreciated the work of Lewis Carroll. For some reason Woolverton and Burton have opted to try and shoehorn Alice into the heroic fantasy mold, which is just completely wrong for the character. Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books are episodic, strange and generally light; the writer played with words and logic, making games of language and thought. What he didn’t do was throw Alice into sweeping battles or have her play a role in the fates of kingdoms, and putting Alice and these characters into those scenarios utterly distorts and ruins them; why anyone ever needed to see the Mad Hatter have a fucking sword fight is beyond me. Everything in this movie is utterly wrong, coming from the point of view of someone who is even modestly aware of Lewis Carroll’s work. The script has left all the whimsy out and replaced it with strange solemnity, and it has dropped all the surreality and replaced it with packaged weirdness.
But even if you’re going to accept the idea that this movie utterly misses everything that makes Lewis Carroll’s books special, it still sucks. Tim Burton seems unable to tell a story with any kind of narrative focus. The movie just wanders in and out of set designs, playing like a giant adaptation not of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland but rather The Art of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Sluggish and plodding, utterly without wit or any flair or spark of life, the film slowly wears you down.
Part of what wears you down is the pestilent design. Burton’s Wonderland is a burnt out husk of unpleasantness; gone is the woodcarving precision of the original books and the lush colors of the cartoon; in their place are diseased purples and festering browns. Everything is disgusting to look at, a fairy tale dystopia. That extends to many of the character designs, which render Carroll’s characters into horrific meatbeasts. Most of the film looks like it takes place in Mordor, which is appropriate since the last third explicitly rips off Lord of the Rings again and again (one of the few non-Mordor locations is the White Queen’s castle, which apparently overlooks a photo of Rivendell). Just try to watch Alice battle the Jabberwocky (I know, I know, but this is the movie they’ve made) and not see a battle against the fell beasts of the Nazgul on the steps of Minas Tirith. I dare you.
Mia Wasikowska is lovely looking as a 20 year old Alice facing an adult life; sadly she’s often utterly boring in a truly tedious hero’s journey role. Helena Bonham Carter is irritating as the Queen of Hearts (incorrectly called the Red Queen), but at least she seems to be having fun. Other actors deliver generic voice over work, and Anne Hathaway looks amazing with white hair but is wretched as the White Queen.
The true stand out miserable performance comes from Johnny Depp, who has been the focus of all the film’s advertising and will be the reason this piece of crap makes any money. The Mad Hatter is without a doubt Depp’s worst role since… well maybe in his entire career. A formless mess of a performance, the Mad Hatter simply allows Depp to give in to all his worst instincts. When the Hatter is mad he’s a Scotsman, when he’s not he’s a lisping prat… except when he’s not a lisping prat. The character himself exists merely as a function of the plot – if you thought that Through the Looking Glass really needed an Obi Wan Kenobi character, you’re in luck – so Depp gets to slide around within him without rhyme or reason. Weirdly the film gives the Mad Hatter an origin story (I shit you not), but even that doesn’t do much to define this mangled version of the eternal tea partier. Still, now I can say that I’ve lived long enough to watch a movie where the Mad Hatter is a dedicated freedom fighter.
Even the vaunted 3D in the film is useless. Burton didn’t shoot stereoscopic, and I’m assuming he never imagined it would be converted after the fact, as he uses almost no depth at all in the picture. I forgot the movie was in 3D, and I don’t mean it in that ‘it was so immersive I was just in it,’ I mean it in ‘the movie’s so flat there’s no reason to shell out extra bucks for a 3D presentation.’ There are a handful of shots where Burton plays with depth of field, but they feel like an afterthought.
One thing I will give the film is that the CGI is terrific. The movie mixes live action with CG almost seamlessly, and the few live action actors have been monkeyed about with in post production. There’s a weight to many of the digital characters, and parts of the film feel animatronic or puppeteered, which I intend as a major compliment. Still, a bunch of strong effects doesn’t stop the rest of the movie from being a heaping pile of garbage.
I had heard early reports that Alice in Wonderland was unwatchably bad, an unmitigated disaster. It’s not – it’s just regular terrible. Sloppy and stupid and filled with an endless string of wrongheaded decisions, the movie’s a mess and deserves to fail, but it never rises to that exquisite level of true horror. It’s a bore, an affront to anyone who is even familiar with the concept of Lewis Carroll and his books, but in the end it’s banal. And I mean that – totally banal in the end, with Alice using her experiences in Wonderland to become a fucking businesswoman. The ending of the movie plays like Tim Burton making peace with the fact that he’s no longer an artist, he’s now a content provider for Hot Topic.
4 out of 10