When Tim Burton's in his element -- the melancholic verve of Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd -- he's an artist of the shadows that makes us appreciate glimmers of hopefulness, but when he crawls out of that hole for something with more of a vibrant slant, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he's tongue-tied, awkwardly dreary and abandons control over his craft. Alice in Wonderland, his vision of Lewis Carroll's body of work, is a mish-mash of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and its sequel, "Through the Looking-Glass", that exists on some middle plane in the director's tonality. What comes out of Burton's work, a knotted mélange of hyper-inventive computer effects and stiffly unsatisfying characters, manages to burst with color and bore in the same dreary breath. Though Wonderland's an oddly beautiful place, and a handful of cherry-picked scenes dip into our capricious indulgence, there's not nearly enough sincere sparkle to give it all purpose.
Those expecting a live-action version of the '51 animation might be dissatisfied. We find Alice, played by newcomer Mia Wasikowska, now a young adult weaving through the upturned, coddled aristocrats who looks at her unkempt looks and dreaminess with disdain. Imaginative and perplexed by the world, she wonder what it'd be like to fly in the sky as birds soar above the dance area of the garden party she's attending, instead of fixing her attention on her obnoxious arranged suitor. When she discovers that this little shindig is orchestrated for their engagement that she knows nothing about, she takes a page out of her now-deceased, daring father's book and acts on crazed instincts: she jolts after a certain, familiar white rabbit into the woods and away from the stiff hoopla, arriving at a rabbit hole that she mistakenly tumbles down. When she arrives at the bottom, her persistent dreams of Wonderland -- ones she's explored before -- seem to be coming to life.
As an infusion of Lewis Carroll's books, Alice in Wonderland has moments where Burton seems like he's going to get it right. Her tumble down the rabbit hole dazzles with spectacle, smashingly using CG-imagery as she swirls down a vortex to the waiting room. Once in the waiting room to go into
Wonderland Underland, she shifts in size -- large, to small, and large again -- in a cockamamie puzzle; visualizing this is very tough, but it's believable due to ample usage of real production-design and splashes of CG-work. We've seen these scenes before in other film adaptations, namely Disney's psychedelic '50s animation, but their realization in a live-action environment hits a deceptive balance between tangible and computer-generated foolery. Moreover, once she steps into the wide air of Underland, a sense of bowl-us-over whimsy takes hold of our cinematic concentration, luring us into this dreamed-up world.
This take on Lewis Carroll's inspired environment explodes into a bizarre yet disheartening beauty, one that holds our attention when nothing else does; Burton runs the gamut of color, from gloomy grayscale dilapidation with splashes of bold color during the tea party sequence, to sunset-drenched pathways through forests. The artistry succeeds in painting a dream-like world that's alluring, almost euphoric, to our eyes, while also spilling with a sense of malnourished joy. This concentration on landscape follows Alice wherever she goes, from the Red Queen's construed, gothic hub of operations -- one that has a moat filled with floating decapitated heads that's, in its morbidity, splendid -- to the glowing trees leading up to the White Queen's celestial construct. Underland's quite the sight, whether for its beauty or its bleakness.
If Burton had stopped with the computer-generated mischief at this point, we might've had a strong outing for Alice's ventures. Instead, he reaches deeper into his satchel of creativity and pushes the envelope, overreaching the bounds of respectable artistry into excess. Sony Picture Imageworks' lackluster animal creations, aside from their host of voices, simply stick out like sore thumbs from the sumptuous atmosphere. Cheshire Cat is, admittedly, rather entrancing as he spins through the air and speaks with a sultry rumble through a mouthful of dagger teeth; however, almost everything else -- from the fencing mouse and the smoking caterpillar to the assortment of hares, rabbits, porcupines, dogs, and large cat-like beasts -- neglect to give us anything beyond what we've seen in other fantasy epics, expanding to a point that comes so close to farce that we lose our patience with the world's peculiarity. A stellar vocal cast, including Sir Alan Rickman as the caterpillar and Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, disappointingly gets swallowed up because of this.
Losing our enchantment with Underland isn't a good thing, because Alice herself doesn't really seem all that interested in her adventure -- and neither do we, as we meander around the film's bloated focus and dire lack of wit. It's understandable that a girl who's frequented this dream-like world wouldn't be wide-eyed and bushy-tailed at its magic for the countless time, yet there's a dour, drone energy to Mia Wasikowska that drains the visual chaos of its fervor. Her "buttoned-up" mannerisms syringe out the environment's fancy, making all of these gothic visions of snarling beasts, loony tea parties, and dueling forces of good and evil about as dull as a dream that you try to remember, but can't. And if Alice isn't inquisitive, then we're not inquisitive; there's so much magic in the air, awesome sights all around her and things that should make her sweat, smile, and stand on her tippy-toes, but her apathy to her "Wonderland" translates to our apathy for Underland.
Like clockwork, Alice stumbles onto all of the Wonderland staples, including Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter and Helena Bonham-Carter's Red Queen of Hearts. Depp's wacky get-up actually tickles my fancy a bit, with the wiry hair, flamboyantly odd make-up, and bulging color-shifting eyes, but his many-sided psychosis is distracting -- and far too frequent. He's an odd mish-mash of an incoherent, skivvy-driven spin on Willy Wonka, a pinch of Jack Sparrow, and a bit of Robert Shaw's Quinn from Jaws with off-kilter vocal shifts, which result in a maddening hatter that infuriates in all the wrong ways. Bonham-Carter, on the other hand, amazes with her rowdy delivery of tyrannical Iracebeth the Red Queen, braying "Off With Their Head" repeatedly and shifting to a pouty annoyance when not. It's in Burton's visual creativity that she weakens, as the rendering of her thrice-sized large head leaves us wishing that they would've left her deflated and leaned on the stellar make-up work. The same also goes for Crispin Glover as the Red Knight, who fumes awkwardly next to Bonham-Carter and even more so when on digital horseback.
Burton has to shake us awake from the inert mess of CG-razzmatazz he's cooked up, and thankfully he does as he approaches its conclusion; the finale offers a display of mayhem that brings grand-scaled action in focus, even if it makes us wonder if this Alice is somehow really the oldest sister of the Narnia kids. A huge square-off on a battlefield-sized chessboard ensnares our attention, clanking in disarray as we attempt to focus on the resolution at-hand as young Alice reaches her "growing-up" point in the narrative. But it's in a way that's far too familiar, harking to the film adaptations of C.S. Lewis' work for inspiration as it pleas to the audience with easy-to-digest fantasy bedlam, and the promise for something daring and brimming with tenacity foils into little more than a disappointing memory of the words scrolled into Carroll's books.
Left: Three-Disc Edition, with cardboard slipcover.
Right: Menu shot from DVD, looks exactly like the Blu-ray.
Alice in Wonderland arrives from Disney in a three-disc Blu-ray presentation: one disc being the Blu-ray, one disc being a standard-definition DVD, and the third disc being a Digital Copy. The package comes in a slimline trayed case with an attractively embossed slipcover adorning the outside. Inside, however, isn't all that much to look at; no chapter listing or booklet and no artwork on either the DVD or the Digital Copy, just on the Blu-ray disc itself.
Video and Audio:
Opinions will certainly vary on Tim Burton's production of Alice in Wonderland, based on its domestic and worldwide box office performance, but one thing that's not under dispute is whether Disney have done proper justice to this confetti-colored, highly visual film on Blu-ray. Arriving in a 1.78:1 1080p AVC encode, this will easily stand as one of the more ravishing eye-candy discs of the year, presenting every ounce of color and every nuance in the production design flawlessly. This happens to be one of those occasions where the high-definition home experience looks even better than the time I had at the theater -- which was in 2D, instead of the post-production 3D showings. Alice in Wonderland runs the full gamut of palette fluctuations, from containing near every color of the rainbow in one shot to desolate grays and muted colors in another, and Disney's Blu-ray preserves every hue with blistering high-definition pop and lush depth.
Starting with the English countryside at the beginning and pressing forward, the level of razor-sharp detail also escalates further as Alice begins her tumble down the rabbit hole. The dark, amber-drenched sequence in the "pre-Wonderland" entry room supports scintillating depth amid very dark lighting, allowing us to view every ounce of detail, such as the the curls on the mini cake, the subtle texture in the marble flooring, and the ever-changing fabric of Alice's gown. Then, as eyesight falls onto the world of Underland, an onslaught of color and a flurry of minutiae detail bombard the senses amid Burton's interpretation of Carroll's boundless world. Trumping through lush greenery in the woods, hiking with the Mad Hatter through a bleak yellow and blue forest, galloping across a desert-like plane, exploring the red-dominated halls of the Red Queen and waltzing around the glaring white and teal-trimmed castle of the White Queen provide a steady, persistent stream of images that are immaculately rendered in high-definition. In short, the marvels of computer technology offer what's essentially the pinnacle of the candy-coated, up-to-date Blu-ray experience. You know, as long as the content suits the viewer.
Accompanying this visual presentation, the DTS HD Master Audio track also triumphs over the heavy demands placed on it -- wildly active ambient effects, Bonham-Carter's throaty screams, the clanking of soldiers' armor and the broad assortment of high-and-low vocal trimmings. The only thing that keeps this track from being as full-throttle exemplary as the visuals are a few aggressively bombastic sequences involving loud crashes that I seem to remember having more impact in the theater. However, what we've got here towers high as a massively enveloping track; the mix of Danny Elfman's music and the jungle-like sound effects in Underland completely sweep you up in robust fashion, allowing flying insects and horses, gallivanting pigs, and the thumps and roars coming from the sharp-toothed mutant cat-like creature (Bandersnatch) to fully immerse us in this brash world. Dialogue remains well-pitched and dynamic in regards to the lower-frequency channel, while the surround channels are almost universally exercised in musical, elemental, and action-based fashions. It's a superb track that throttles forward with just as much character and clarity as the visuals. English SDH, French and Spanish subtitles are available to accompany either this track, the English 2.0 DVS, or the French and Spanish 5.1 audio tracks.
Accessing the Bonus Features portion of this Blu-ray disc opens up Disney's typical tree structure navigation for the supplements, divided here into Wonderland Characters and Making Wonderland. Underneath each of these options, a collection of five to six (5-6) featurettes become selectable that focus on each of the topics. Though that sounds like it'll be a labyrinthine, comprehensive affair like Disney's other Blu-rays, these features only tally up to 47 minutes and 25 seconds (47:25) and neglect to include storyboards, sketches, a commentary, or even a trailer for Alice in Wonderland itself. There are a few exclusive to this high-definition release that include some excellent behind-the-scenes shots -- of note, a large amount of footage featuring Bonham-Carter in her pre-CG Red Queen dressings -- but the materials included are fleeting and not terribly comprehensive.
Wonderland Characters (27:56, HD AVC):
Here, several of the characters in the film -- and, in two cases, their actions/looks -- receive their own individual behind-the-scenes bits in six (6) portions, constructed with interview time and behind-the-scenes footage. It's obvious that the Finding Alice piece was meant to be something of a standard dish-out feature, because it's rife with back-slapping and surface-level depth -- though the behind-the-scenes footage, as with the rest, remains excellent all the way through. It's the rest of the features that delve a bit deeper into the characters, with improved, more casually insightful interviews and what not.
Depp unveils where the term "mad as a hatter" actually originated, Bonham-Carter reveals that she was the very first characters sketched and looked like a "bald alien" in her make-up sessions, while the featurette on the White Queen shows us that Anne Hathaway was wearing a cap and wig just to make her scalp look flesh-colored. Plus, all throughout, each assembly feature concentrates on the visual tricks implemented to make each character look slightly fantastical, and how the costume design had to mold to those complications. Two of the features, Finding Alice (5:25) and The Mad Hatter (6:02), appear on both the DVD and the Blu-ray, while The Futterwacken (3:23), The Red Queen (5:58), Time-Lapse: Sculpting The Red Queen (2:40), and The White Queen (4:27) appear as Blu-ray exclusives.
Making Wonderland (19:29, HD AVC):
Similarly, the more construction-based special features available here also splinter off into six (6) featurettes and concentrate on individual bits within the film. Collapsing the entire construction of the film into less than twenty minutes, with four of those minutes centered on just the cakes and tea party props, it's very skim-across-the-top in regards to everything that went into this production. On the other hand, it's always fun to hear modest Danny Elfman chat, as he does in the Scoring Alice piece,, as well as Mia Wasikowska expressing her frustration with acting against tape and tennis balls in the Making the Proper Size feature. Obviously, since it's the only feature to appear on both the DVD and the Blu-ray, the Effecting Wonderland (6:53) piece takes a more general focus on the varied "disciplines" at work in the picture, from the different styles of CG-animation to motion capturing -- and actors performing with nothing there. The rest of the features, Scoring Wonderland (3:10), Stunts of Wonderland (2:34), Making the Proper Size (2:13), Cakes of Wonderland (2:34), and Tea Party Props (2:04) are all Blu-ray exclusives.
Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is a prime example of a great slate of ideas, including a "dream team" pairing of director and source material, that follies its opportunity by stumbling over into bland excess -- much like mixing too many vibrant shades of paint into a soupy gray mass. An overabundance of creativity matches awkwardly with Burton's difficulty in handling more "vibrant" material than his melancholy repertoire, colliding into this muted explosion of dreamy colors and embellished computer effects that are haphazardly crammed into drab storytelling. Some of the performances are winning and the world of Underland can be stunningly mesmeric, yet the picture feels every ounce of those 100 minutes it spends with the audience due to its oddly subdued temperament.
Disney's Blu-ray does, conversely, project the ravishing audiovisual experience with pin-point grace, while also including a fistful of supplemental material that, though not lengthy, gives glimmers of the magic underneath Burton's eye. It's certainly worth a Rental -- and, obviously, far more for fans of the film -- but there's still the lingering sensation of this being a missed opportunity that instead exists as empty confection.
Note: Screenshots in this review are from the standard-definition DVD included, and do not represent the quality of the Blu-ray.
Thomas Spurlin, Staff Reviewer -- DVDTalk Reviews | Personal Blog/Site