Tim Burton messes up with his latest film, a confused adaptation—or “extension”—of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland books. Playing like a sequel to the infamous story of the little girl falling down the rabbit hole, this film has more in common with Steven Spielberg’s lousy Peter Pan sequel Hook than with Burton’s best films.
That’s not to say Alice in Wonderland is lousy. It isn’t, and there are some pleasures to be had, especially if you catch a 3-D screening. Johnny Depp’s bright orange Mad Hatter eyebrows look like they will end up poking up your nose. As for a coherent story, Burton never lets one jump off the screen, even with the funny glasses.
The film features a 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) returning to Underland after falling through a rabbit hole during her engagement party. When she arrives, all of the familiar characters—the Cheshire Cat, the Tweedles, Absolem the Caterpillar—are all there, though she doesn’t remember them, much like Robin Williams’ befuddled, confused grownup Peter in Hook. She eventually winds up at a tea party, where the Mad Hatter has been waiting for her return.
What follows is some nonsense with the Hatter being taken prisoner by the Red Queen (played by—SURPRISE—Burton’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter). This all leads to an overblown battle finale with Alice squaring off against the Jabberwocky.
Much of this looks good, but none of the performers manage to do something that gets the viewer involved in the story or their characters. Even Depp’s characterization feels gimmicky and lacking an emotional core. And I must confess I’m not a fan of the visual conception of the Mad Hatter. He looks like the unholy, flamboyant bastard child of Carrot Top and Madonna.
As the title character, Wasikowska just seems like she’d rather be sailing or something instead of working on Burton’s film. Her Alice is strangely uninvolved, a sleepy onlooker unimpressed with all of the weird crap being cast upon her. She’s like Kirsten Dunst in a shit mood on a five-day drunk. Anne Hathaway as the White Queen does little more than walk around like a posing doll.
I did, however, love Tweedledum and Tweedledee, an interesting live and CGI concoction featuring actor Matt Lucas. And casting Crispin Glover as Stayne, the Knave of Hearts was an inspired choice. Bayard, a big bloodhound whose heart is with Alice but is employed by the enemy, is another decent creation, voiced by Timothy Spall.
While the film was always intended as a 3-D release, Burton made the conscious choice from the beginning to shoot in 2-D and convert to 3-D in postproduction. As a result, the 3-D visuals aren’t as crisp and dazzling as something like Avatar, which was shot with 3-D cameras. The visuals are still playful, but just a little flatter in places.
In the end, I didn’t feel like I was watching a cohesive movie. Alice comes off as a series of sketchy ideas held together by a flimsy premise. And, it must be said, Burton is starting to fall victim to his own clichés. The familiar Danny Elfman soundtrack, the repeated casting of Depp and Bonham Carter, the kabuki makeup, and so on; it’s time to ditch some of that stuff and reboot.
Now, I realize I’ve disliked two big 3-D blockbusters in a row. (I am not an Avatar fan.) Don’t take this as a condemnation of the 3-D format, because I love the new technology. I’m just hoping this is the end of skimping on story in favor of adding extra visual dimensions to cinematic endeavors. While I like teacups soaring over my head, I’m still a sucker for a good story, and Alice is missing one.