I'm not positive exactly when it was, but my love of movies probably didn't ramp up until the summer between junior high and high school. As a result, there are quite a few movies my friends saw when they were kids that I either haven't seen or didn't see until very recently. One of the filmmakers I think I basically missed out on was Tim Burton, who was already mounting his ill-advised Planet of the Apes remake by 2001. Over the last decade, I have seen and loved Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice and Ed Wood, but even though I'd give Burton's Chocolate Factory more credit than most (comparisons between the two movies are boring, folks), he seems to have lost his sense of personal investment in making movies. Alice in Wonderland is packed with the usual Tim Burton Visuals® and a freshly unwrapped Johnny Depp Performance™, but it's also dull as dirt, without a single speck of charm or whimsy to be found.
Mia Wasikowska plays Burton's version of Alice, a 19-year-old girl who's been plagued by dreams of grinning cats and blue caterpillars since she was very little. Just as she's being presented with the opportunity to marry some dweeb who doesn't interest her, she spots a well-attired rabbit with a pocketwatch, which she chases up a hill and down a hole into another universe, filled with all the things she's been seeing when she sleeps. The rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen), a doormouse (voiced by Barbara Windsor), and the rotund Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both played by Matt Lucas with the aid of CGI) all usher Alice to the caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman), who informs her that, if she is the real Alice, she'll have to kill the Jabberwocky, a monstrous dragon owned by the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).
Some of you may have noticed that Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton have gone in a distinctly different direction than the traditional interpretation of Alice. Jabberwocky was originally a poem from the second Alice book, Through the Looking Glass..., although as far as I know, the creature doesn't actually show up. Before I saw the film, I talked about Burton's right to stray so far from the source material with my friend (and /Film contributor) Brendon Connelly on Twitter. On one hand, there probably isn't a single novel-to-film adaptation in history that didn't stray from the source material, but on the other, it seems like the filmmaker has an obligation to the fans of the original work. Not an obligation to please them -- you can't please everyone -- but to justify the need to use the original work to tell a significantly different story. Not to go off on a tangent, but this is exactly why the concept of fan fiction has always bothered me: if these people are so adept at writing stories and characters, why not create original ones? Watching Alice, it's hard to ignore how Burton's twisted and contorted the source material to fit his own needs rather than creating a story that demands these characters, and these characters alone, in order to exist.
Even if the viewer sets aside the fact that this Alice in Wonderland doesn't really resemble Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass... at all, there's also the fact that Alice's journey is just plain dull. (Mild spoilers ahead. Frankly, they're barely spoilers, but if you're really worried, skip to the next paragraph.) One of the biggest problems with the movie is that this Alice is actually making her second journey to Wonderland, which, for reasons that are left unexplained, she has forgotten. Wasikowska is one of the few interesting elements in the movie, bringing a wonderful kick-butt enthusiasm to the character when it comes to her adventure. Of course, the film manages to muck up even that tiny ray of sunshine: Alice spends almost the entire movie under the impression that Wonderland is an extended dream, so she spends more time being a passive observer than a would-be warrior, and a lack of any compelling goals further stunts her spunky attitude. Considering that a great heroine for young girls is a rare breed, these decisions are extra-disappointing.
Instead of anything interesting, Burton heaps ugly-looking computer-generated landscapes and characters onto the screen in droves, the worst being his wife's Red Queen, a shrill, jokey character that spends most of the movie hollering at full volume about frivolous crap. Depp's Mad Hatter is not as bad as he looks, even if he's a compendium of increasingly boring Depp-isms, but that's no mean feat, considering the makeup that Burton has picked for the character has to rank among the most unappealing combinations of color I have ever had the misfortune of witnessing. Similar comments are in order for the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), whose stark appearance and overly thick lipstick manages to rob the actress of her natural good looks. There might be a hint of satire in the way she holds herself, but the movie is too loud and obnoxious looking for it to translate. The movie is also surprisingly graphic for a PG movie: one creature gets his eyeball plucked out with a needle, severed fingers are dropped into a potion, and there is a fairly sustained beheading.
The final strike against the movie is that it contains the least-interesting use of 3D I've seen yet. It's not bad, per se, but there's no need for it whatsoever, other than to slap on another gimmick that might score the film a few more dollars at the box office. If you're planning to hit a theater this weekend for a showing of the film, I'd tell you to at least do yourself a favor and see it in good old 2D, but then, I'd probably tell you not to bother seeing it at all. It's the kind of film that Tim Burton might have once prided himself on avoiding: an uninspired commercial cash-in. "You're completely bonkers," Alice tells the Hatter, "but the best people always are." Funny how a film that's supposed to be about misfits and oddballs could seem so plain and ordinary.
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