Status: In theaters (opened 3/5/10)
Directed By: Tim Burton
Written By: Linda Woolverton
Cinematographer: Dariusz Wolski
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover
I don’t think I’ve mentioned this here before, but I really hate the current trend in movie titles. It’s bad enough that the majority of major releases these days are remakes or reboots or sequels or rehashes, but they also go for generic-sounding titles for these releases, and I find it annoying. (The most offensive recent example was a movie about a dead rapper that indiscriminately pilfered the title of one of my top-five favorite films of all time.) Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland fits this trend: IMDB lists 24 different movies or TV programs with the same title. Most annoying about this is that it comes from a director known for his originality and his unique visions. This recent version falls a bit short of that billing, but it manages to satisfy nonetheless. It’s a unique take on Alice, Wonderland, and the events that she experiences there, with its own tone that stands apart from other adaptations of Lewis Carroll’s classic books, though not to the degree I would’ve preferred.
That tone lies somewhere right about halfway between the animated Disney classic and American McGee’s Alice—the latter being, for my money, the best Wonderland story there’s been. True to form, Burton mixes equal parts wacky, fantastic, and downright creepy. The result is about as mixed as that sounds like it would be, but it’s a mostly coherent vision that’s executed—with some exceptions—to Burton’s usual degree of proficiency. This story deals with a late-teenage Alice (Mia Wasikowska), who has memories of being in Wonderland as a girl, but isn’t sure if they were dreams, hallucinations, or events that actually transpired. There’s a nice framing device employed, dealing with Alice’s life in the real world in Victorian England, and it serves to adequately set up this confusion before she ventures down the all-too-familiar rabbit hole.
There she finds a world that’s not exactly as we’d expect. It’s not the darkly insane rendition of Wonderland from the American McGee game, but it’s not such a cheery place, either. She encounters the well-known cast of characters we’re all familiar with, although some are more bizarre versions of their former selves than we (and Alice) remember. Most notably, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is exponentially more insane than before; it’s one of those over-the-top Depp roles that ends up being more wacky than creepy, but it does serve to set the tone for the adventure Alice will embark on. Her main quest is to confront the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), another over-done character, who’s protected by her knight, Stayne (Crispin Glover), the most fitting character in the film—he’s crazy, but not to an overly silly degree—as well as the vehicle for the best performance among the supporting cast. All of the big names here, though, are trumped by Mia Wasikowska, who plays Alice as a sarcastic, skeptical, and forthright girl, and creates a sufficiently sympathetic main character to guide us as an audience through an unknown world.
That world is rendered, it goes without saying, by a lot of CGI. An odd decision here was to post-process the film to make it 3D, although it wasn’t shot that way, in an apparent attempt to ride the coattails of the box office success of Avatar—a strategy that I must concede has worked. The result is somewhat of a mixed bag. Some scenes benefit from the 3D enhancement, while others are distractingly awkward. There are several instances, too, of stuttery animation that at times pulled me out of the movie. If I wanted to try really hard to defend this, I’d say it’s a purposeful attempt to add to the surrealism of the film, but I honestly don’t think that’s the case.
My main gripe with this Alice, though, is that it just feels like a grab bag of Wonderland lore. A lot of the minor characters, settings, and events feel like they were thrown in out of obligation rather than in service of the story. The smoking caterpillar, for instance, seems to be there just so they could cast Alan Rickman to provide his voice. Likewise, some of the off-beat, comedic moments don’t feel quite like the normally creative Burton we’re used to; rather, they feel more like Burton going through the motions of making a Tim Burton movie—again, more out of obligation than apparent inspiration. The one Burton staple that fully lived up to my expectations here was Danny Elfman‘s score, which is as good as always. Not that the rest isn’t good; it’s just that when I go to see a Tim Burton movie, I expect to be surprised, and this time I really wasn’t. If you expect a slightly wacky take on the Wonderland that you’re already familiar with, your expectations will be met—they just won’t often be exceeded, and for me that’s a disappointment. The one pleasant surprise is Mia Wasikowska, and combined with the spectacle of the hyper-real visuals throughout the film, her Alice makes this version of Alice in Wonderland worth seeing—particularly if you’re okay with not being totally blown away.