Alice in Wonderland

starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, and Helena Bonham Carter
written by Linda Woolverton & directed by Tim Burton
Rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar.

For thirteen years, 19-year old Alice Kingsleigh (Wasikowska) has been haunted by a nightmare about a strange world full of weird creatures. But Alice is about to learn that this other place is more than just a dream; she actually visited Underland as a little girl. Now, her old friends need her to return to fulfill a prophecy that shows her defeating the Jabberwocky and saving Underland from the tyranny of the evil Red Queen (Bonham Carter).

Tim Burton needs to have his creative license revoked until such time as he can demonstrate that he is able to use it responsibly. There is so much that is wrong with Burton’s Alice in Wonderland (a grossly-misleading misnomer, as the entire film takes place in “Underland” and a single throwaway line of dialogue near the end explains the discrepancy) that it is difficult to notice the brief flashes of things that are right. Most of these come courtesy of the cast, which is surely one of the most notable assemblies since, well, the last Harry Potter movie.

I am not primarily referring to the heavily-marketed and wildly-uneven Depp, here doing his best Carrot Top impression as the Mad Hatter. Wasikowska, still a relative unknown if not a newcomer, does a good job with a flatly-written character whose development never makes any sense, and Bonham Carter and Hathaway are delightfully broad in their depictions of royal sisters, the Red Queen and the White Queen. Best of all, though, are the actors whose faces we never see, like Alan Rickman’s all-too-brief scenes as the Caterpillar and Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat.

There ought to be something positive to say about the film’s visuals, as Burton is perhaps best known for his unique aesthetic. There are certainly some striking concepts in play at various points, but Alice in Wonderland is perhaps the most distractingly rendered movie I have ever seen. Virtually every frame seizes you by the lapels and screams, “I am a computer-generated image!” in your face.

With films like District 9 and Avatar bringing us real and CG images which convincingly inhabit the same space, the garish artificiality of Alice, in which none of the actors in any given scene appear to be performing in front of the same camera, looks primitive and lazy. The creature design runs the gamut from nearly realistic to totally cartoonish, while the human and human-like characters in the movie wander aimlessly through the uncanny valley. Their appearances are marked by an off-putting grotesqueness and their movements impaired by an odd, stop-motion jerkiness. Nothing ever looks quite right, and your eyes know it, even if your mind can’t quite process what the problem is.

None of this would matter a great deal if the film’s story weren’t the worst sort of disaster imaginable. Aside from the occasional laugh, screenwriter Woolverton has failed in nearly every way that it is possible to fail. The attempts to reference the original source are perfunctory and haphazard, but its very essence is sacrificed for a flavor-of-the-month, cookie-cutter fantasy quest involving the recovery of a special sword, the slaying of a terrible monster, the fulfilling of an ancient prophecy, and the salvation of an imaginary kingdom. The whole business is obviously meant to be some sort of sequel, as it repeatedly refers to Alice’s first visit, but it seems to be cherry-picking elements from Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and Disney’s 1951 animated classic completely at random. In short, it is a follow-up to a story that does not exist.

Finally, after a titanic but pointless battle between the Red Queen’s cards and the White Queen’s chessmen, the movie stops pretending and just jumps the shark. The Mad Hatter does an appallingly stupid victory dance to some upbeat pseudo-pop dreck, then Alice heads back to rejoin the framing story so she can apply the lessons of Underland to her own life. What that amounts to, in this case, is showing her new “empowered Victorian woman” chops by turning down the stuffy British lord she is supposed to marry. She then wows her father’s old business partner with a radical new idea: Why not be the first English company to open up trade with China? It’s so crazy that it just might work!

The absurdity of this proposition beggars the imagination. Leaving aside, if one even can, the fact that, by the time Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland was published in 1865, England had been trading with China for centuries, the implications of this development are almost too embarrassing to point out. After her transformation from eccentric, weak-willed girl to proto-feminist warrior woman, Alice’s first move is to open new frontiers in colonial imperialism. This exemplifies perfectly the inept, clueless inanity that seems to have informed nearly every filmmaking decision behind Burton’s Alice in Wonderland.

~ by Jared on March 5, 2010.

3 Responses to “Alice in Wonderland”

  1. *Sigh* and I was really looking forward to this film. Now I just feel ill. :-(


  2. I wouldn’t let a bad review taint your view before you’ve even seen it. Personally, I enjoyed the movie a lot, and I think this review is a little (or a lot) harsh.


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