Review: Alice in Wonderland (2010)



Tim Burton
Linda Woolverton (Books by Lewis Carroll)
108 min.
Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse, Timothy Spall, Marton Csokas
MPAA Rating
PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar.

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Tim Burton’s continued decline into mediocrity continues with the bloated, meandering behemoth called Alice in Wonderland.

Loosely, very loosely, based on Lewis Carroll’s acclaimed stories Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass and Jabberwocky, screenwriter Linda Woolverton takes the audience on a journey with Alice (Mia Wasikowska), now entering adulthood, back to her childhood world of escapism called Wonderland (or as the film would have you believe, a misheard interpretation of Underland).

Escaping an arranged marriage, Alice wants to be her own woman but is trapped by the social requirements of the era. Without a father, her mother has little choice but to marry her off to a spoiled, socially inept wealthy man. At the large party held to celebrate their engagement, a fact Alice has not been privy to up to that point, she catches sight of a strange, clothed rabbit running through the bushes. As she pursues him down the rabbit hole, she enters a world that she has forgotten, but which has not forgotten her.

There, years after her exodus, the kingdom has descended into anarchy. The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) seeks vainly to find the prophesied deliverer who will kill her beloved pet Jabberwock. Should she find her, it will be “off with her head” (even if it’s the Queen of Hearts, not the Red Queen who used that legendary exclamation).

As she meets the various characters we are all so familiar with, the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both played by Matt Lucas), the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman and so forth, she tries to rationalize whether or not she is this Alice this world’s legends have fortold would return. It’s only when she finally meets the Hatter (Johnny Depp) at his perpetual tea party that she really begins to believe she is the one everyone has been waiting on. And through the Hatter’s assistance, she embarks on a quest to save the kingdom and discover who she is in the process.

To say that this film is an adaptation of Carroll’s stories is a misappropriation. The film should have been more accurately billed as a film which takes some elements of the original literary work and twists them into a vanity-laden Tim Burton feature.

Burton seems to be focusing on pushing his own boundaries, looking for the next new twist and unusual source for his macabre visual style. When he started out as a filmmaker, his works were singular, inventive and memorable. He hit his peak in 1994 with Ed Wood and began a significant decline, not in quality, but in execution, as the ‘90s wore on. His visuals will always be his strongest elements, but as Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, The Corpse Bride and Alice in Wonderland show, a great director he is no longer. Big Fish and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory were the last films of his that were even remotely interesting and even they had a few problems. But after that, he has done nothing impressive. The Corpse Bride was a vain attempt to achieve the success he had as producer of The Nightmare Before Christmas and Sweeney Todd was a pathetic and pedantic destruction of the great Stephen Sondheim stage musical.

Alice in Wonderland is towards the bottom of his creative capability, but is not his worst achievement (Todd and Corpse Bride are below that). The only thing worse than his ability to craft a terrific film based on material from another medium is his over-reliance on Johnny Depp as a star of his films. To date, Burton and Depp have collaborated on seven films together. It’s about time that relationship ended. Not only was Depp’s performance in Sweeney Todd unbelievably out of sync and unnecessarily over the top, his work in Alice in Wonderland is too much of the same. Depp gained notability thanks to his chameleon-like approach to acting, yet as we see more and more of these performances (Sweeney Todd, Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), the less and less I think of him as an actor. He doesn’t create characters, he is one. It’s like asking Jack Nicholson to play anyone but himself. Sure you may get some interesting results on occasion, but there’s no longer any appearance of depth or originality in his work. There are so many common elements to each of his performances that there is no distinctiveness except in the voice he chooses to use.

Most of the rest of the cast of Alice in Wonderland is equally outlandish. Their characters are supposed to be, but Burton seems to want these characters to be more over-the-top than necessary. Even the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), who could easily have been a voice of reason or a calm, imperturbable presence is still garish and unrelentingly peculiar. Wasikowska, who could easily become a rising star in the industry, does her best to keep her feet grounded in reality, which is as it should be considering her character, but she gets swept away with the grandiosity of the project on occasion, but ultimately comes out of the production the least scathed.

What makes Alice in Wonderland any measure of success is the gorgeous environments. The world has been destroyed and is less idyllic than it has been under other, child-based adaptations of this work, but that adds to the film’s charm and scope. Robert Stromberg’s production design is outstanding, Colleen Atwood’s costumes are rich and detailed, and Dariusz Wolski’s cinematography is crisp and lofty. They add immeasurably to Burton’s world. That Danny Elfman’s score isn’t as marvelous as his past scores is a little unsatisfying, but the rest of the film is at least a pleasure visually…that is if the entire affair weren’t done in 3D.

What may very well be one of the defining moments of the new decade’s excessive allowances, 3D has begun to influence many films despite having little to no purpose of being there. The 3D effects work in Alice in Wonderland feels hopelessly tacked on. One of Burton’s strongest design elements is the darkness and shadow he employs voluminously. When you have those dark, polarized 3D glasses on your face, the visuals are already harder to see, but in Burton’s world, images are virtually unrecognizable. Add to that his often quick push through certain scenes, and you have a blurred, murky mess of effects that do little to justify the cost of converting a film into the third dimension.

The perfect example of this is during the very first scene in which 3D effects become obvious. As Alice is plummeting through the rabbit hole, she moves at a break-neck speed hurtling past various items that, with the 3D glasses on, are indistinguishable from the dark background. When she finally comes to a thud in the small, circular room of doors, the room itself is bleak and featureless and becomes more so when glimpsed through 3D spectacles. It’s one of many scenes in the film that would have been better served by a brighter, more vibrant print.

The unfortunate part about Alice in Wonderland is that those whose opinion of film is easily swayed or who see anything outside of the norm as a positive experience, will find something to enjoy in Wonderland. Even some right-thinking individuals may be caught up in the film, but in no way should they be assured that this is anything more than a visually beautiful, but emotionally hollow, substance-starved feature from a director who seems to have lost his way.
Review Written
May 4, 2010
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Add a Comment
  1. Your reviewing Sweeny Todd or Alice in Wonderland? Make up your mind

  2. Think about how much you’d hate it if someone other than Tim made a mediocre sequel to Scissor Hands, or Beetle Juice. Well, that’s how much I hate his sequel to Lewis Carol’s classic Alice. Off with his head!

    1. I’m surprised those two films haven’t ended up with remakes or sequels yet…

  3. There are so many things wrong with Burton’s narrative structure, character development, song selection and I dare say that Depp, who has some moments of beauty, is utterly miscast and makes Todd too dark and less an anti-hero than he should be.

    But, I have very strong negative feelings about Sweeney Todd, so we’ll have to agree to disagree.

  4. I agree with all you say except for your negative criticism of ” Sweeney Todd”. That film, in my opinion, was the only Burton film of late with any integrity. It cannot compare with the stage version, but most films can’t. Stage is a singularly different environment and experience. But I felt that Burton was highly resepectful of Sondheim’s score, and stayed clear of the ususal “over- the- top-pushing the envelope-visuals” and the like so prevelant in his films. Depp came back to his craft of acting and infused Todd with the controlled maniacal helplessness descending into madness that was believable and heart breaking–and awarded him an Oscar nomination, if I recall. Not since “Scissorhands” have I been so moved by his accurate infusion of pathos to an otherwise “unwordly” character.

    However, I agree it is time for Burton and Depp to part. “Too Long At The Fair” is too kind a sentiment. They both need to eliminate the crutches they have been leaning on with each others unhealthy “enabling” and get on to the individual risk taking necessary to keep from stagnating–in cinema, or any other aspect of life.

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