Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Alice's Land Left Me Wondering

Alice in Wonderland

Based on Lewis Carroll's two stories, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, as well as his poem "Jabberwocky", Tim Burton's latest film, Alice in Wonderland, is not short on source material...although it often feels that way at times. In this latest version of the classic story, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is 19 years-old who is tormented by the same recurring nightmare, of a strange land, since she was young girl. On the same day Alice receives a marriage proposal, from a man whom Alice does not love, she sees a strangely dress White Rabbit (Martin Sheen) scampering around in the garden. While chasing the rabbit Alice stumbles into a hole that transports her to the magical Wonderland. Alice has no recollection of the place, which she first visited when she was a child, and thinks it is all a dream. Yet the inhabitants of Wonderland, including the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), desperately need Alice to regain her memory. It has been foretold that Alice will dethrone the ruthless Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) by defeating the beast known as the Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee). Once the Jabberwocky is destroyed, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) can resume her rightful place as the true ruler of Wonderland.

Tim Burton is known for his surreal visuals and this film is no different. Alice in Wonderland’s greatest strength is the wonderful art direction and special effects. This is probably Burton's best looking film in years; even the minor details, such as the White Queen's soldiers having the heads of chess pieces, are a treat. If you exclude Stayne (Crispen Glover), who looks awkward in every scene he is in, it is tough to find fault with the outstanding visuals. The funny thing is, for a film that had such wonderful art direction, the 3D aspects were shockingly poor. I will not get on my usual soapbox about how 3D is a cash grab, as I have beating that horse to death. Regardless, I can easily see visual elements, like the seamless incorporation of the Cheshire Cat in many scenes, amazing audiences in either format.

Speaking of the Cheshire Cat, I thought Stephen Fry's voiceover work was near perfect. The same can also be said for Alan Rickman, who brings the Abosolom to life with a mystic charm. The interesting thing about Fry and Rickman's performances is how easily they steal scenes from the actors on screen. You know you have problems when the CGI characters are far more interesting than the human ones. Which brings me to one of the flaws with Alice in Wonderland; the film has too much talent and not enough use for them.

It is rare that you walk into a film starring Johnny Depp and walk away being more wowed by the supporting characters, like the aforementioned Fry and Rickman, yet that is exactly what happens here. While I liked the darker tone that Depp gave the Mad Hatter, his overall performance was surprisingly dull. I understand that Depp is trying to find a balance between exploring the root of Hatter’s madness and being the comic relief; but he often falls short on both parts. At times it felt like Johnny Depp was merely channeling the Scottish cousin of his Willy Wonka character from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. The difference being that the Mad Hatter’s often mumbles large chunks of his dialogue. At first I thought I was merely burned out by the Depp/Burton pairing as this is the fourth straight film they have done together, and eighth film in total. Then I realized that even the new players to Tim Burton's world were not fairing much better.

Mia Wasikowska is a serviceable but ultimately forgettable Alice. Even when she final raises up and embraces her female independence, which the entire film is building towards, it does not carry the weight it should. We should be cheering Alice along her journey yet I found myself caring less about what happened to her as the film went along. I will say that Wasikowska was much better than Anne Hathaway, as she at least had things to do. Anne Hathaway, on the other hand, had to suffer through a painfully awkward performance as the White Queen. Hathaway serves no real purpose in the film other than to be the embodiment of good. Since the White Queen has sworn not to hurt a living thing, she is merely glides around all day with her dainty hands in the air. It is shame to see such a talented actress like Hathaway take on such a meaningless role.

The only on screen actor that really seems to fit the tone of the film is Helena Bonham Carter. As the Red Queen, Carter is a delight to watch in her small role. In a few short scenes she conveys a queen who is both ruthless and desperately in need of acceptance. If you take away Helena’s performance there is no other human character that really generates any interest. Alice’s family and friends are mere footnotes to the overall picture.

While the art direction, and a few key performances, keeps Alice in Wonderland afloat; the film, in the end, is much ado about nothing. Tim Burton’s version of the source material creates a beautiful but hollow world, which is probably why Alice found it so forgettable in the first place.


  1. I wasn't very familiar with the source material heading into the film, which may have been a good thing. I thought the movie was fine, no more and no less. yes, the visuals treats were plentiful (although the 3D effects were disappointing) and most of the performances were entertaining, including Anne Hathaway, whose performance everyone seems to be berating.

  2. @edgar - At first I thought that I was the only one bothered by Hathaway, but my girlfriend found her awkward as well. Maybe if they had chosen an actress who wasn't as well known...I might not have been so hard on the White Queen. Casting Hathaway brought a lot of attention to a role that seemed rather meaningless to me.

  3. I haven't seen it. I don't know if I will either.

    But your praise of Helena Bonham Carter, here in England, has fallen on deaf ears as she seems to modelled on Queenie from Blackadder (a BBC Tv series comedy starring Rowan Atkinson). So I am told.

    I think I'll only watch Alice if I want to watch ALL of Tim Burtons movies. I doubt this is 'up there' with Scissorhands.



  4. @Simon - You aren't missing anything, nor should you waste your time. The film looks great, but it is nowhere near Burton's best works (Edward Scissorhand's etc.)


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