Photos courtesy of Disney Enterprises, Inc., 2010
Review by Ryan Wilson
Let's consider the perils of attempting to make the new Alice in Wonderland. Sure, the green screen technology to recreate Wonderland is there, but who is your audience? If you only answer children, then you risk watering down some great Lewis Carroll moments, but if you want an adult film, then much of Wonderland begins to lose its whimsy.
Which is why director Tim Burton would seem the perfect fit for the project. The man has made his career out of giving us adult material through the anxious eyes of a child. I'm thinking back to Burton's early, more absurd films, like Pee-Wee's Big Advenure and Beetlejuice. What is Beetlejuice, after all, but a morbid adaptation of Carroll, where a girl takes a trip through the bizarre land of the dead complete with a nonsensical guidebook and ghosts who deny that they've died?
And what is Burton's masterpiece, Edward Scissorhands, but a tale of a teenaged girl tossed into a gothic wonderland, where she falls in love with the monster? It's not a Beauty and the Beast story, but rather an ironic "girl meets sideshow oddity" story that challenges us to question the norm in our ordinarily bland routines.
There's some of this spunk in Burton's Alice. Played well by 19-year-old Mia Wasikowska, she is an overly imaginative girl in unimaginative Victorian London. Think Neil Gaiman's Coraline stuck in a Jane Austen novel. This is a consistent theme in other Burton tales: the spirited outsider at odds with the establishment.
The only problem here is that Alice's real-life obstacles are much more intriguing than what she finds in Wonderland. Before she falls down the rabbit hole, she must fend off a drip of a potential suitor, pacify her shallow social peers, condescend to her big sister who sees marriage as an end in itself, and take a terrifying walk around a garden with her pre-arranged mother-in-law who clearly hates her. With this preamble, screenwriter Linda Woolverton turns the classic character into a lively, promising feminist.
Too bad Alice's pluck wilts once she enters Wonderland. Here she must abide by other people's rules, rather than create her own. Once in Wonderland the film feels constrained by the many classic characters that Lewis Carroll conceived. Yes, we get the Cheshire Cat and the White Rabbit. But they each feel like repeats, like we've been through it all before. For a Tim Burton film, they're not nearly cock-eyed enough, which is strange because Burton is not one to shy away from the grotesque. I was hoping for something close to his adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, where he brought his own dark humor to the classic character of Willie Wonka. Instead, Alice in Wonderland chooses to alter the narrative rather than play with its characters, and the result is closer to Burton's worst film, the stale and lackadaisical Planet of the Apes.
At its worst we're given some history about Wonderland and how it's become such a dark and strange place. But isn't that supposed to be the point of Wonderland? It's a dark and strange place; we don't question how it got that way.
Burton's Wonderland also feels more like Middle Earth. Portions of it are charred and blackened like Mordor, while other areas are lush and vibrant like Rivendell. And the kingdoms in each region ultimately battle each other with swords and armies, along with a dragon crafted from Lewis Carroll's "Poem of the Jabberwocky." In the end good must defeat evil, although I'm not at all sure why. Shouldn't Wonderland in and of itself be lacking a moral compass?
Shouldn't Wonderland in and of itself be lacking a moral compass?
I'd look to Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter to bring some relief here, but in this version his madness is more of a ruse, as if he's a spy to fool the Red Queen, played by Helena Bonham Carter. She's been Burton's muse for the last ten years now, and her performance is the best thing about the film. Bonham Carter's Red Queen is more like a harpy toddler demanding drinks and requiring her subjects to change their appearance to make her feel more attractive. As for Depp, sadly he's not the loopy fun he was as Willie Wonka. He's not even the eccentric soul he was as Ichabod Crane in Burton's Sleepy Hollow. Instead, he wavers between a masculine Scottish brogue and an effeminate lisp. Near the end of the film, he's asked to breakdance in probably the single worst moment of his career.
This sort of Disneyfication overcomes any sort of Burtoneseque vision in the picture. To borrow a term from the film, Burton loses his "muchness." We've come to expect the art direction to be the strongest portion of his films. In fact, he's often sacrificed story for powerful set pieces, as in his Batman films, and I credit him for this. More than any other modern director, he understands that film is a visual medium. But aside from the Red Queen's bulbous head, not much stands out in his Wonderland. All of the cards and the chess pieces blend into a bland background. Even the 3-D effects cease to pop after a while.
Perhaps Burton's previous standards are now too high to meet. Alice in Wonderland will no doubt please many audiences. I just wanted Burton to peer further through the looking glass.
Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College's WUCX Q 90.1, airing every Saturday at 8:35 a.m. and again at 9:35 a.m. Produced by Jennifer Vande Zande. For more information, visit deltabroadcasting.org.
© Ryan Wilson, 2010