Although this review may suggest otherwise, I’m actually a very big fan of Tim Burton’s work. His earlier films are considerably stronger than his recent output, with “Big Fish” being the only clear exception. Pictures such as “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “The Corpse Bride”, while entertaining in their own weird ways, are lifeless, emotionally hollow affairs, void of the sort of dramatic satisfaction present in “Edward Scissorhands”, “Ed Wood”, and, strangely, “Beetlejuice”. It’s almost as if Burton’s own imagination is working against him, transforming his magical, humanistic creations into special effects-laden “big event” movies designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator.
The filmmaker’s latest effort, the surprisingly dull 2010 family flick “Alice in Wonderland”, is as soulless and unappealing as Disney’s lackluster “Chronicles of Narnia” franchise, though Burton certainly scores extra points for his kitchen sink approach to visual design. Wonderland is hallucinogenic, a colorful, eye-catching universe where every square inch of the screen is teeming with an array of computer-generated distractions. The presentation is frequently overwhelming, especially when twenty different things are swirling around the screen at once.
Buried beneath this mainstream psychedelia is the tired, well-worn framework of your typical Hollywood fantasy movie: A hero or heroine enters a strange, unfamiliar world, encounters a host of unusual characters, is forced to destroy an evil that threatens to overrun the land, and, eventually, saves the world from despair. Additionally, this person will also learn valuable real-life lessons that will be applied during the final touching moments of the feature. The credits will roll, a catchy pop song inspired by the movie will begin to play over the soundtrack, and all is right with the world. If you’re lucky, there will be a cross-console videogame, a fast food tie-in, and lots of fan faction to read in your spare time.
This is Burton’s interpretation of “Alice in Wonderland” in a nutshell. Instead of simply adapting the original stories like so many others before him, the talented director has instead used Lewis Carroll’s heady tales as the foundation for a pseudo-sequel which begins years after Alice’s original adventures have ended. Convinced by her father that these escapades are nothing more than a series of impossibly vivid dreams, Alice slowly begins to forget about her experiences in Wonderland, much to the dismay of those who have toiled so hard to lure her back down the rabbit hole.
There’s actually a very good reason why these bizarre individuals want her back: Alice’s role in the destruction of dreaded jabberwocky has been foretold, and the residents of Wonderland are more than a little eager to fulfill the prophecy and reclaim their land from the hateful, mean-spirited Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Problem is, Alice believes they’ve got the wrong girl, and is understandably reluctant to embark on this extremely perilous journey. However, with the assistance of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and a few other unlikely allies, Alice slowly begins to believe in herself, allowing her to rise triumphantly to the occasion at-hand. As you may already have guessed, it’s pretty epic stuff.
Problem is, “Alice in Wonderland” just isn’t very exciting. There’s plenty of fast, light-hearted action on-tap, to be sure, and the finale is literally saturated in glossy, high fantasy-inspired shenanigans. Unfortunately, there are simply too many ideas and way too many characters in Linda Woolverton’s overly ambitious script, forcing Burton to fill our cinematic plates with more than we could possibly hope to consume in one viewing. The core essence of the story has been overblown, stretched thin, its nuances obscured by the Red Queen’s humongous head and the Mad Hatter’s peculiar speech patterns. The film’s meticulously-detailed set pieces and gorgeous costumes are certainly easy on the eyes, but these elements do little to hide the clumsy plotting and sluggish pacing.
Regarding performances, it’s safe to say that everyone does a serviceable job with their respective roles, though it’s painfully clear which actors had a firmer grasp of the material. Some, like Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Matt Lucas, bring their characters to life with a suitable amount of twisted glee, while others — Mia Wasikowska in particular — seem utterly confused by the emotions they’re supposed to be displaying at any given moment. Sadly, any film that fails to make proper use of Crispin Glover is a failure in my book, especially when the movie in question should allow him to do what he does best. For shame, Tim Burton. For shame.
As if these problems weren’t enough to sour my experience with Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland”, the picture is saddled with one of the most remarkably embarrassing celebratory sequences I’ve encountered in quite some time; it makes the Ewok dance at the end of “Return of the Jedi” look like the stuff of Broadway legend. Of course, none of these complaints matter much in the grand scheme of things, as a film of this nature is virtually critic proof. One look at its 3-day box office numbers shows that the production is well on its way to the land of wealth and profitability, and I’m honestly not surprised. Be that as it may, those looking for an intriguing, thought-provoking angle on the “Alice in Wonderland” series should definitely look elsewhere. The picture may have Burton’s colorful stink smeared all over it, but there’s really nothing new here. I’d be greatly disappointed if I weren’t too bored to care.
Tim Burton (director) / Linda Woolverton (screenplay)
CAST: Mia Wasikowska … Alice
Johnny Depp … Mad Hatter
Helena Bonham Carter … Red Queen
Anne Hathaway … White Queen
Crispin Glover … Stayne – Knave of Hearts
Matt Lucas … Tweedledee / Tweedledum
Stephen Fry … Cheshire Cat
Michael Sheen … White Rabbit
Alan Rickman … Blue Caterpillar