Alice in Wonderland: Curiously, Alice Is Not That Wonderful
It seems like a match made in Lewis Carroll heaven. Tim Burton, king of the Gothic macabre aesthetic, constructing Alice’s home away from home, the trippy Wonderland. Drug users of the world were waiting in line for weeks before its release. The allure of its presentation in IMAX 3D also got me excited, the possibility of a complete transportation to another world. However, outside of the character designs and a couple of the performances, nearly everything about Alice is mediocre. The story, a sequel of sorts, is uninspiring. The lead actress is as bland as can be. The 3D is a step backward from Avatar, a headache-inducing and unconvincing illusion. Finally, the tempo of the film is so swift that we fail to care, and then we become bored– I almost fell asleep in the middle of the afternoon during a giant CGI monster battle. That’s not good.
Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now a teenager, and in this British society, teenage girls marry for money and social status, not for love. As she’s about to be married off to a despicably snooty aristocrat, she runs away into the gardens. She sees a rabbit with a watch, which is the same peculiar image she’s seen in her dreams her whole life. She follows him down the rabbit hole and into the familiar Eat Me-Drink Me room. We meet all of the characters we know and love again– the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both Matt Lucas), and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). We find out that Alice is fated to slay the Jabberwocky and end the evil reign of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), beginning the reign of the peaceful White Queen (Anne Hathaway). But as a teenage girl who doesn’t remember having been to Wonderland before, she’s understandably hesitant to fulfill her destiny.
This sounds like epic stuff from the description, but it isn’t. It’s surprisingly unengaging. The dialogue is fairly uninspired. I found myself far more interested in following some of the supporting characters in the British high society world at the beginning, like the snooty husband-to-be or the old single woman who never got married. They suggested some depth, unlike Alice, who wears blandness as her main character trait. There’s no sense of longing for adventure, no sense of active self-searching– just a blank stare. This may not be the fault of Wasikowska, who I’m sure is splendid, but she basically serves in this film as a vessel to propel the story forward from special effect to special effect. This is especially disappointing since Burton said in interviews before the film came out that he didn’t think the original created an emotional connection to the characters, so he wanted a framework that would create that. Instead, he’s created a stiff structure that restricts our ability to enjoy the characters at our leisure, and since the story has zero suspense, it’s akin to imprisoning potentially interesting characters, allowing us moments and glimpses of what the film could have been.
Not surprisingly, the best performances are from Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. They immediately understand Burton’s dark Gothic sensibilities, and Burton responds in suit by giving them actual dimension as characters and plenty of screen time to let the audience care more about them than the others. Depp is an easy pick for a standout: he goes from being another one-dimensional loon at the Tea Party to being the only character that gets a dramatic flashback. Carter’s CGI head is a marvel to look at, and her vocal choice is beyond amusing. Also emerging from the pack in smaller roles are Anne Hathaway, who with her pale skin and undercurrent of darkness seems tailor made to star in many Burton films to come, and Crispin Glover as the Knave, who simply put is always a joy to watch onscreen in a small role, because his strangeness makes him immensely watchable.
Burton not-so-subtly creates parallels to Wonderland characters in the real world, which I found more distracting than enlightening, like some pale allusion to The Wizard of Oz. The difference is that Oz was more than just a visual feast, it provided a world of surprises in the story as well. Wonderland certainly looks terrific, and the character designs are borderline genius. I loved the Red Queen’s court of characters with their own enlarged body parts to match her head. The art direction also is sensational, from the White Queen’s castle to the war-scorched forests to the river surrounding the Red Queen’s kingdom full of decapitated heads. Too bad the 3D, which was added after filming rather than implemented from the beginning of filming, is not the smooth 3D of Avatar, but rather the same headache-inducing post-shooting conversion that has been proven to be inferior. I know 3D means more expensive tickets and more money for the studios… but why do people choose it?
Biggest crime of all: it forces this hackneyed story down our throats rather than letting us explore the world. I wanted to know more about the March Hare, more about the Dormouse, more about the White Queen. I wanted the same sort of leisurely pace that Lewis Carroll set. He was smart enough to know that the world is the star, thus a linear plot isn’t necessary. This film moves along at a high tempo and bores us as a result. There’s a big fight scene at the end, with lots of battling, and a giant monster voiced by Christopher Lee (whose voice is always a pleasure to hear) fighting an armor-laden Alice. It’s surprisingly… ordinary. I couldn’t have cared less. The execution of all of this is fine, but it’s troubling to think that Burton, whose always been more interested in the visual elements, didn’t realize that perhaps his finest art direction in a film to date didn’t merit further exploration. Instead, we get a cliched Wizard of Oz-esque finale, complete with a Johnny Depp pop-locking celebration dance– easily the strangest scene of 2010 already. Curiouser and curiouser.