Not So Much A Riddle As A Theme Park Ride: “Alice In Wonderland” by Tim Burton

Copyright © 2010 by Walt Disney Pictures.

I’ve always been a Tim Burton fan.  There’s something about his bizarre sensibilities that attracts me.  Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, Batman, Corpse Bride, even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory–I love ’em all.  Sure, sometimes the black-and-white makeup and costumes can seem a little repetitive over time, but I’d much rather go to a Tim Burton film than most of the other mainstream releases.

That being said, I was very excited to hear that he was working on an adaptation of the Lewis Carroll classic, Alice in Wonderland.  Double that excitement when I hear that none other than Johnny Depp–a longtime collaborator of Burton’s–would be cast as the Mad Hatter.  The trailers alone had me giddy with anticip… pation!  Not to mention, this would be the first of the new 3-D films I was going to see.

So how did the film meet with my expectations?  Well… it didn’t.

Allow me to explain…

The Story: Oh Boy, Yet Another Story Of Overthrowing Tyranny

Alice (played by Mia Wasikowska) is now a nineteen-year-old girl in London who loses her way from a formal party after chasing the White Rabbit down a hole.  She ends up in Wonderland–only now its real name is Underland–and learns that the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has become a tyrant, overthrowing her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), and using the Jabberwocky to keep her subjects in line.  According to prophecy, Alice is destined to slay the Jabberwocky with the vorpal sword on the “Frabjous Day,” thus freeing Underland and restoring the benevolent White Queen.

That’s the grand conflict for the film.  The “personal” conflict is about Alice trying to come to terms with this bizarre land, dealing with others claiming that she’s the “wrong Alice” to overthrow the Red Queen, and trying to convince herself that this is all just one extended dream.  Her resolution comes with being able to “believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast,” which is an excellent practice when you’re trapped in a fantasy land with talking animals and an orange-haired hatter with questionable mental health.

The Cast: Giving Forgettable Names To Forgettable Characters

One of the most unusual changes is that, whereas the original Carroll story just used titles and nicknames like “Mad Hatter” and “Caterpillar” to refer to the people of Wonderland, here everyone seems to get their own legitimate name.  The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is now called Tarrant Hightopp, the Red Queen is Iracebeth, the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) is Absolem, and the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) is Thackery Earwicket.  It’s the sort of thing that gives a little bit of depth to the story, were it not for the fact that you can’t help but still think of each character by their original title.  When you look at Johnny Depp, you think “Mad Hatter” because that’s how you’ve always known the character.

Going to performances, however, I’d have to say there’s a real spectrum.  On the “lower” end is Alice; Mia Wasikowska doesn’t emote as strongly as you’d expect a girl confronted with a magical land to be, and like most Burton protagonists, she takes Wonderland Underland in stride.  On the “higher” end is the Mad Hatter; Johnny Depp really brings a human side to this character, balancing light-hearted wit and silliness with sudden dark turns and flashbacks to the horrors unleashed by the Red Queen’s rise to power.  He also gives a recitation of verses from the original Jabberwocky poem in the most grim and epic way possible.

Plus he's the coolest looking thing in the entire movie. Copyright © 2010 by Walt Disney Pictures.

As for the rest of the cast, they fall in between the two performances, which is rather sad when you consider the sheer number of celebrities: Michael Sheen, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, and Christopher Lee.  Of all these roles, I was overjoyed to learn that Christopher Lee would be voicing the Jabberwocky… right up to the point where he gives us only two to three lines of dialogue and then Alice cuts his tongue out with the vorpal sword.

It’s like they’re trying to make me lose faith in this production.

The Style: Whimsical But Forgettable

I saw this film in theaters with 3-D glasses on, and right away, I noticed the main problem with trying to make 3-D films.  While James Cameron’s Avatar gave audiences a whole landscape specifically designed for 3-D, Tim Burton’s Wonderland is shot in 2-D and then converted for 3-D.  It’s hard for things to really stick out to the audience when everything is big, brightly colored, and richly detailed.  The scenery is so beautiful and grandiose that it loops around and becomes plain.

For a fantasy land, it sure can be a little unimaginative. Copyright © 2010 by Walt Disney Pictures.

There’s also the score by Danny Elfman, without which no Tim Burton project would be complete.  Generally, I love Elfman’s music as much as I love Burton’s visuals and sense of the macabre, but here, it’s as uninteresting as the rest of the film.  It’s loud and grand when the scenes are just as big and majestic, but when the movie’s over, I couldn’t tell you what it sounded like.  Also, the opening theme is one that tends to get stuck in your head long after you’ve finished watching, so there’s that to contend with, too.

Final Verdict: Pretty But Even More Nonsensical Than The Original

I don’t think Tim Burton is wrong for trying to reimagine Wonderland or give it a more coherent plot than the original fairy tale.  But I was hoping to get a film that really captured the essence of the original story, which was alluded to in this movie but never really shown.  Instead, it’s more of a dry freedom-fighters-versus-oppressors plot with some pretty visuals (you know, Avatar).

But in spite of that, I recommend you watch it for Johnny Depp’s performance.  He breathes life and levity into the film just as he does for the historic character he’s playing, and when it’s hard to tell your landscape apart from your actors, then a little breath of fresh air is just the sort of thing an audience needs.

Bibliography: Alice in Wonderland (film).  Directed by Tim Burton.  Produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Joe Roth, Suzanne Todd, and Jennifer Todd.  Written by Linda Woolverton.  Based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass by Lewis Carroll.  Perf. Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall.  Walt Disney Pictures, 2010.

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