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artisanal film reviews | by maryann johanson

Alice in Wonderland (review)

Trip and Fall

We should thank Tim Burton for his Alice in Wonderland, for it does one thing extraordinarily well: It reminds us that James Cameron really did achieve something new and astonishing with Avatar. Experiencing the 3D of Pandora is like walking through a real place, a technical feat that Cameron pulled off so beautifully and so subtly — its immersiveness, that is; not, obviously, the blacklight neon-ness of it — that it almost defeats itself. Avatar does what it does so cunningly that you don’t realize it till you look at a film like Burton’s Alice. Though both films were produced at the same time and from the starting point of the same available technology and by directors who are hugely inventive, Alice can’t manage 3D any more involving than throwing random objects out at the viewer because, you know, it can and because, perhaps, it doesn’t realize what else 3D can do. There’s no reason for Alice to be in 3D, unless Burton was deliberately reaching for cheese. We don’t walk through Wonderland like we walked across Pandora.
I’m struggling to find a reason for Burton’s Alice to exist at all, actually. I wasn’t crazy about Syfy’s surface-similar Wonderland reimagining this past autumn — which also posited a young-adult Alice returning to a realm she’d journeyed to years before as a small child — but at least it extrapolated from Lewis Carroll’s books [Amazon U.S.] [Amazon Canada] [Amazon U.K.] a fantastical underworld that had moved on from Alice’s first visit to devolve into a sort of urban punk hellhole. Burton’s Wonderland is almost exactly as Carroll invented it, and almost exactly as it was when this Alice (Mia Wasikowska: Amelia, Defiance), now 19 and with no memory of her earlier trip, first arrived. And because she remembers nothing, she reruns through everything she’s done before, to the annoyance of even the Wonderland denizens she encounters: “You’d think she’d remember this from the last time,” one of them complains while she’s juggling the magic Eat Me cake and Drink Me potion. Indeed.

Perhaps Burton really wanted to just adapt Carroll straight up, but realized the difficulties that would be involved with working with a six-year-old actor. I’m not sure that’s a good enough reason to age Alice up, however. Even the hints that this teen Alice is extra spunky and spirited for a late-19th-century lass — she falls down that rabbit hole while escaping from an unwanted marriage proposal — are all but forgotten once she arrives in Wonderland, where she is buffeted around by forces entirely outside her control and barely asserts herself at all. The very ending of the film sends Alice off on a new, true adventure that Lewis Carroll would never have dreamed of, and that was the first moment when I finally perked up and said to myself, “That’s the Alice adventure I’d like to see!”

Before that moment, which alas came just before the end credits, the only experience that felt unique was how bored I was by the whole endeavor. I can’t remember ever being bored by a Tim Burton movie — not even Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which enraged and disgusted me, was this flat and uninvolving. This isn’t so much a movie but the coffeetable book about the movie’s production design: an exercise in design could be the excuse for the film’s existence. But even on that level, there’s not a lot going on here that we haven’t seen before. From Burton-esque curlicues to Johnny Depp’s (Public Enemies, The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus) Mad Hatter — clothes, and nothing else, maketh this man — to the hugely benoggined Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter [Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince, Terminator Salvation] plus CGI), everything here is intended to be oo’ed and ah’ed over but not touched with anything approaching story. And yet even much of what we see feels tediously familiar, borrowed from elsewhere: The White Queen’s (Anne Hathaway: Valentine’s Day, Bride Wars) realm is Rivendell; Alice riding the Bandersnatch is The Golden Compass’s Lyra riding the warrior polar bear Iorek Byrnison; even the Mad Hatter’s tea party is taking place in the shadow of the gearpunk windmill from Burton’s own Sleepy Hollow.

Just about the only thing Alice in Wonderland made me feel was nostalgia for that 1980s Tom Petty music video. You know the one: the one that captured the trippy Alice-ness of Lewis Carroll in precisely the way that this one does not.


MPAA: rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar

viewed at a public multiplex screening

official site | IMDb | trailer
more reviews: Movie Review Query Engine
  • JoshDM

    CGI abuse is what really bothered me with Sweeney Todd.

  • Emrys

    There is a problem with 3-D, particularly right now. It is hugely expensive and technically challenging to produce.

    Avatar was filmed in 3-D from the beginning. Two HD cameras, every angle, every shot, every time. A camera for each of your personal eyeballs.

    Alice was filmed in 2-D and made 3-D in post production precisely and specifically because of the run away success of Avatar. Briefly, post production 3-D involves slicing the frame into layers like a diorama. This is why most low budget 3D endeavors look like cardboard cut outs moving in paralax, thats exactly what they are. Its also why Alice’s “3-D” only really stands out when CGI objects are tossed around, it was never designed to be watched that way.

    3D is a technical and aesthetic nightmare. Most of the live action 3-D movies that are coming out will be of the post production variety. Thanks so much Avatar! Not only were you an awful, black hole hype machine of a film, you also ruined movie making aesthetics for years to come!

  • doa766

    Burton has nothing to do with the 3D, the movie was shot on 2D and it was studio decision to converted to 3D without his supervision

    same thing happened with most of the upcoming 3D movies this year due to Avatar’s success

  • MaryAnn

    *Alice* is still boring, 3D aside.

  • MaryAnn

    Thanks so much Avatar! Not only were you an awful, black hole hype machine of a film, you also ruined movie making aesthetics for years to come!

    Don’t blame *Avatar* for that! Blame the cheap, lazy imitators — they’re the ones who deserve the blame.

  • kathleen

    I agree the 3d was what I would expect from a disney theme park ride/movie . Nothing on the level of Avatar.

    I didn’t think the movie was boring- just missing so much. It just seemed like the moment you found something that could be interesting it was dropped and on to the next scene. The few bits that were there were a bit predicable.

    It made me wish there was more to it. Explore the characters and wonderland itself. That didn’t leave me bored- more along the lines of disappointed.

    I also felt that the music with Johnny Depp’s dancing was completely inappropriate.

  • I actually thought that Burton’s take was refreshing. He obviously wanted to do an “homage” film to the original Alice, but frankly there wasn’t much in the original books that resembles plot. It is really just a series of vignettes connected only by Alice.

    He managed to hand-pick some of the more interesting characters, cook up a plot that suited them and the characters, make Alice a little older (to remove the little-girls with grown ups *ick* factor) and make it visually and emotionally satisfying.

    I agree about the 3-D. I actually went to see this in 2-D deliberately to avoid the “3-Disappointment” as I am calling it.

  • Keith

    3-D was used to enhance Avatar. Alice In Wonderland seems to be an attempt to enhance 3-D. This is backwards, which is why Alice feels so empty. The technology should support the movie, not the other way around.

  • LaSargenta

    Totally out of left field thought: Everytime I encounter a new Alice in Wonderland/Through the Looking Glass movie, I think of Dreamchild with Coral Browne. Ever since I saw that back in ’85(? or ’86?)at The Public, Browne as the old Alice Hargreaves and Holm as Dodgson have stayed in my mind’s eye.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    MaryAnn, do yourself a favor. Copy/paste that first paragraph into a text file. Delete “Alice in Wonderland” and “Tim Burton” and all permutations of those names. Save the file to your desktop.

    You’re gonna need it for the next 3 years, at least.

    I, for one, do blame Avatar. To expand on an earlier comment, I suppose the 3D in Avatar does “enhance” the movie. It elevates it to “technologically interesting”, up from “worthless drivel”. The gimmick of 3D adds nothing to a movie. Your brain already interprets a movie image in three dimensions, otherwise simple camera tricks like Gandalf in Frodo’s house wouldn’t work. The unnatural eye movements 3D forces on the audience are just distractions. With luck, the latest fad would have died a quick death after maybe another summer.

    Now, it’ll probably have at least a 5 year life. But the Cameron process will be hugely expensive for a while, and there’s no guarantee it will be as effective on a largely live-action production. So expect huge numbers of movies like Alice and Clash of the Titans – otherwise passable genre flicks with 3D slapped on top. Very few successors to Avatar, for whatever that’s worth.

  • Anne-Kari

    I had a bad feeling about this one from the start, and I’m sorry to see that it looks like my fears have been realized.

    I really, really want Burton to STOP adapting/remaking existing material. I want him either start writing his own stories again or collaborate with another writer – see: Beetlejuice, Pee Wee’s Big Adventure, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, like that.

    Still, I did like Sweeny Todd…

  • Emrys

    I would be more willing to forgive Avatar if it weren’t a calculated effort to influence film production. It certainly had no other redeeming qualities apart from showcasing technology and technique.

  • Hank Graham

    Burton has gotten predictable, which is ALWAYS a precursor to boring.

    Check this out:

    http://bit.ly/bZa0Ri

    I think the production meetings for Alice were *exactly* like this.

    What Burton needs is a writer he trusts and respects the way he does Danny Elfman.

  • Left_Wing_Fox

    I think Avatar is revolutionary in that it’s pretty much the third wave of Digital 3d productions.

    The first wave is gimmickry, doing it for the spectacle, like the old iMax thrill rides or the B-grade horror movies of the 50’s.

    Second wave plays with the actual storytelling techniques of the medium, and starts to take it seriously. Coraline and UP both use 3d the way art directors use colors or composers use music; adding to the emotional tone of the films. Coraline’s “real” world is flat with forced perspective compared to the world of the Other Mother, while Up sees the depth of the fi;lm shift to match Carl’s “Boxed in” life or the wide open wold of adventure.

    Avatar I think is notable in that it’s the first film to treat 3d as an integral part of the process, rather than an afterthought. It’s a glimpse at what the mature 3d technology can look like, where it serves not just as a gimmick, but as just another step in making an more visceral and immersive fim experience, just as the addition of color and sound were to the movie process.

  • Dr. Rocketscience: “I, for one, do blame Avatar. To expand on an earlier comment, I suppose the 3D in Avatar does “enhance” the movie. It elevates it to “technologically interesting”, up from “worthless drivel”.”

    and

    Emrys: “I would be more willing to forgive Avatar if it weren’t a calculated effort to influence film production. It certainly had no other redeeming qualities apart from showcasing technology and technique.”

    i believe the same things were said of The Jazz Singer and talking pictures. And of technocolour… and of Dolby Surround Sound, and of Imax… eventually, the technology and the narrative blended and became one thing — until the next jump.

  • Jim Mann

    Blaming Avatar for the faults of subsequent movies that use 3D is like blaming Star Wars for the flood of space-battle heavy movies and TV shows that followed (such as the original Battlestar Galactica and Buck Rodgers). In both cases, other film makers latched onto one idea and used faulty logic (“Star Wars had space battles. Star Wars was good and made lots of money. Therefore, other movies with space battles will be good and make lots of money”) to create the works that followed.

    Avatar did not make all the money it made because of 3D. I doubt that many people went to Avatar in 3D that would not have gone had the film been 2D. (Though it made a bit more money because theaters charge more for 3D films.) That being said, as a few other folks here have noted, the 3D in Avatar, unlike that in most other 3D films, actually is effective (in large part because it isn’t in your face or flashy, it’s just there as part of the film).

  • RogerBW

    Umm… didn’t Cameron start on the script for Avatar in January 2006, while Joe Roth didn’t start on the script for Alice until April 2007? (Wikipedia.) Seems to me that that extra year-plus would offer a lot of opportunities for doing a better job.

    (Not that I’m arguing with any of the rest of the logic, particularly other commenters’ distinction between “made in 3D” and “converted to 3D”.)

  • amanohyo

    Jim Mann, you may be right, I don’t have any hard data about the reasons people went to see Avatar. However, anecdotally, I and all (not some or even most) of my friends and co-workers would not have seen Avatar if it was not in 3D. Most of the pre-release buzz I read about the movie was about the new tech.

    Without the 3D, Avatar has very little to offer. I agree with your main point though, there’s no reason to blame Avatar for the failings of movies that try to ride its three dimensional coattails. There’s also no reason to blame movies like this one for hopping on those coattails; the strategy has worked well judging by the box office (although the Disney marketing behemoth probably deserves most of the credit).

  • MBI

    Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is indeed a boring piece of shit. Indeed, I’m not sure how a Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland could have been better. Tim Burton is exactly the wrong person to do a version of Alice in Wonderland. He is entirely too obvious a choice for a work that’s already been adapted to hell.

    I blame the script more than Burton, though. It turns Lewis Carroll’s masterwork into a Narnia movie. And not a good Narnia movie either.

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Bronx, Jim, you’re harshing my “righteous anger at Avatar” buzz. Stop it. :-P

    But seriously, you’re right, I shouldn’t blame Avatar for the coming tsunami of bad 3D. But I don’t think it’s right to blame filmmakers for the learning curve on using the Cameron process. Nor do I blame a Hollywood business model that understands that MOTS sells.

    I blame the hordes of film-goers who flocked to Avatar droves. I’m gonna blame the same people for Transformers 3. :-@

  • RogerBW

    Dr Rocketscience: I blame piracy.

    Not for its economic effects – which are clearly nonexistent, though that doesn’t stop the RIAA lying about them – but because the studios, in a bid to prevent purely hypothetical losses from pirates, have jumped behind the one thing that isn’t better on a big screen at home than in the cinema. They’ve abandoned any attempt to beat the home user on picture quality, sound quality, or environmental hygiene…

    Once home 3D displays come out – which is happening quickly, of course, now that there’s the possibility of material to watch on them, and I expect there’ll be some available at vaguely sensible consumer prices within five years – this advantage will vanish again.

  • Shadowen

    I’m not gonna go see it, but there’s only one reason for using 3D in an Alice in Wonderland film: if the film starts in 2D and goes to 3D when she enters Wonderland, and if/when she leaves Wonderland goes back to 2D.

    If this is not what happened, then Tim Burton has officially jumped a dozen sharks.

  • Der Bruno Stroszek

    So I just saw this, and is it me, or is the ending the most unbelievably misjudged thing Burton has ever done?

    SPOILERS:

    The dancing? Horrifying. I was chewing my knuckles praying for it to stop. Alice going around at the garden party sorting out everyone’s life? Awful. How much did you want Frances de la Tour’s character to say “Bitch, don’t tell me to see a shrink – you’ve just spent the last hour and a half talking to a chain-smoking anthropomorphic caterpillar”? Besides, this is Victorian England – psychiatric care was less “Tell me about your problems” and more “Let’s lock you up and drill holes in you”. So yeah, thanks Alice. You really had your aunt’s best interests at heart there.

    And then the closing suggestion that Alice was responsible for opening up British trade with China, with all the unpleasantness that entailed. I sort of love Burton’s Anglophilia and I don’t think a fantasy movie needs to get the country and its history ‘right’, but my God, if he’s moving onto imperial nostalgia, he and I have parted ways.

    SPOILERS END

  • Dr. Rocketscience

    Spoilers!!

    Alice’s alternating protestations that she must be the “real” Alice because it’s her dream AND that she can’t be the “real” Alice got real old real quick.

    Shifting the action away from Alice’s perspective (1st scene of the Red Queen, the hounddog goes to the White Queen, the execution scene) was jarring in a story ostensibly about Alice’s dream.

    The final, post-Wonderland scenes were horribly out of place.

  • “In every generation, there is a Chosen One. She alone will stand against the bandersnatches, the jabberwocks, and the forces of the Red Queen. She is the Alice.”

    Okay, the film didn’t quite put it that way but there are times during the big climax when it might as well have. And that’s not including the obvious shout-outs–or maybe not so obvious to people who aren’t me–to Great Expectations and The Messenger.

    I must confess that I didn’t dislike the film the way almost everyone else here appears to have. Then again, I haven’t been to a movie theatre for a while so maybe I’m just waxing nostalgic. And, judging from the clips I’ve seen on YouTube, the original AiW is looking a lot more interesting than this effort–so it’s a shame the 1951 version is currently out of print right now.

  • dg

    Overall, I thought the film was boring, but I did like the visuals with the Cheshire Cat and the Caterpillar.

    Otherwise, this film was a snoozer. Sad to say.

  • texphile

    I actually liked the movie, though the feminist ideas in a tale set in Victorian England was a bit jarring. The 3 D was a waste of money, I have to agree.

  • Rabbithole

    I was as unimpressed by Avatar as I was by Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Both movies entirely lack original storytelling. Avatar is basically Pocahontas in space. Strip away the 3D “oooh shiny object”, and what do you have? Not much at all.

    Burton’s Alice in Wonderland fail where Avatar atleast makes it worth watching. Avatar does look good. And if that was all a movie had to do, it might excuse the PR tsunami that surrounded it.

    But Wonderland is not even interesting from a visual point of view. It’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (anyone else think that Depp’s Mad Hatter looks a lot like Depp’s Willy Wonka?) with a bit of Sleepy Hollow and other generic Burton stuff thrown in.

    Burton used to tell weird and interesting stories, neatly wrapped up in a visual world entirely his own, resulting in a complete believable and immersive universe. Wonderland didn’t suck me in like earlier Burton movies did. I didn’t believe in it. All the while, sitting in the theater, I was aware of myself watching the movie, constantly reflecting on what I was watching. When that happens it’s usually a clear sign, that the story and visuals don’t capture my imagination.

    The story was mostly pointless and the rest was Burton on repeat. He has gotten lazy.

  • Okay, now that I have had a chance to review the 1951 original, I’m starting to regret my last post on this thread.

    This isn’t really a bad movie but it’s not a good movie either. It borrows ideas from so many sources that it pales in comparison to the original–which wasn’t the most faithful adaptation possible but had a certain clever spirit which made one understand why people would want to watch it over and over again.

    So much blame has been attached to Tim Burton’s quirkiness that it should be noted that the most maddening quality about this movie is that it isn’t quirky enough. Instead, Burton plays it safe by borrowing bits from movies that are already popular. A bit from Pride and Prejudice, a piece from Great Expectations, another piece from Lord of the Rings…and all the while you can sense Burton doing his best to stifle a yawn.

    The only bit in which Burton shows any creativity are the various moments in which the heroine seems to be in eminent danger of suffering a wardrobe malfunction–which makes me wonder which bit of the Lewis Carroll Mythos really attracted Burton. And does his wife know?;-)

    Then again Alan Rickman as a talking caterpillar is better than no Alan Rickman at all. And Christopher Lee as a talking dragon? Oh, my!

  • bitchen frizzy

    “Eminent” danger? Pun intended?

  • Er, I wish. I suspect my brain meant “immediate.”

  • Nope, it meant “imminent.” As a former English major, I should know better.

  • Maureen

    It’s taken me awhile to comment on this one, mainly because I havn’t ever been this disappointed with a Burton movie before. It’s not that its a bad movie I guess, by the standards of most Disney films coming out, I’d say its compariatively good, but it just didn’t feel to me like a Burton film. I felt like Disney or the scriptwriter or whoever had taken out what makes a Burton film a Burton film, and this made the film boring. As Mary Ann said, she might not have liked all of Burton’s efforts, but they were never boring. All I know is that I sincerely hope that;

    a) Burton never works with Disney ever again
    b) Anne Hathaway never does either. Her White Queen did not fit at all with the twirlyness and such
    c) Burton dosen’t ever openly endorse imperialism again. As someone else pointed out, if he’s to the point of endorsing imperialism, then it’s time him and I parted ways. I’m actually surprised that more was not made of this.

  • Aaron

    Mary,

    is there even much more to offer in this wildy random nightmare-like film to offer than really nice production design. If not, then doesnt it at least get kudos for doing the best one could with the said material?

  • MaryAnn

    If not, then doesnt it at least get kudos for doing the best one could with the said material?

    Who said it did the best it could with the material?

    And who is this Mary person?

  • FeRD

    the studios, in a bid to prevent purely hypothetical losses from pirates, have jumped behind the one thing that isn’t better on a big screen at home than in the cinema. They’ve abandoned any attempt to beat the home user on picture quality, sound quality, or environmental hygiene…

    Once home 3D displays come out – which is happening quickly, of course, now that there’s the possibility of material to watch on them, and I expect there’ll be some available at vaguely sensible consumer prices within five years – this advantage will vanish again.

    You won’t have to wait anything close to that long. And that in itself is one of the reasons why I feel you’re a little off the mark, in your analysis of the studios’ motives and intentions.

    First, the tech. Home 3D isn’t “on the horizon” or “likely to be priced within consumer reach in the next few years”. It’s coming. As in, already departed, and in the process of traveling our way, right now.
    The 3D standard for Blu-Ray is completed, available, and already being implemented towards by the media publishers. There are Blu-Ray 3D titles currently for sale on at least a preorder basis.

    Blu-Ray players, like the Sony BDPS570 and Samsung BD-C6900, that support Blu-Ray 3D are already on the market. From day 1 they weren’t really priced that much higher than equivalent models without 3D support, and that gap will only shrink. In fact, it’s likely to vanish entirely with the next generation of players, when I’m betting 3D compatibility, at least, is near-standard equipment.

    On the TV front, all of the major manufacturers announced plans for 3D models at the January CES, with projections for availability ranging from “Spring 2010” to “later this year”. Samsung released pricing on their line last month, and while the 3D models aren’t cheap, they aren’t stratospherically expensive either. Even better, last week Panasonic released pricing and dates for their upcoming 2010 3D Plasma line. The engadget story is here:
    http://www.engadget.com/2010/04/23/panasonic-prices-dates-full-3d-plasma-lineup-65-inches-for
    but all you really need from it is this quote:

    Those MSRPs place them a couple of hundred bucks north of last year’s models, but a rep for great 3D and 2D performance should help anyone struggling over the upgrade

    Manufacturers, unless they’re idiots, will be positioning 3D-capable TVs so they cost just somewhat more than last year’s similar non-3D models. They want buyers to pay a little more for 3D, but keep the price difference small enough that shoppers can be convinced to dig a bit deeper in order to future-proof their new TV purchase. Ideally, whether or not they have any immediate intention of viewing 3D content.

    Heck, with all of those pieces aligning, for a lot of people the biggest hurdle in the sprint to home 3D may be the glasses! Right now they’re still up around $200 a pair, which starts to look awfully daunting if you’re a family of 4 or 5 who all want to watch movies together. Again, tho, that price should drop like a stone if the technology takes off and sales are brisk. And Samsung’s already announced a deal for 2 free pair when you buy your 3D TV and Blu-Ray player at the same time.

    It seems clear that the home entertainment industry is gearing up for general availability of home 3D, likely as early as this holiday season. They’re ready with the technology, it’s productized, and they seem ready to push it out to the general consumer, not just the high-end or enthusiast markets. Whether or not consumers take them up on it will probably depend on how the next 6 months unfolds for 3D movies in theaters.

    So, really, that’s the thing — it’s hard to believe that 3D is going to keep movies out of the hands of home viewers. The major home-entertainment manufacturers are gearing up to help bring 3D technology into the home, and will be happy to sell consumers the equipment to do it! They’re hoping 3D will drive technology sales, and they’re pricing the technology within reach of the consumers in the hopes it will drive sales of content that takes advantage of the new technology (meaning Blu-Ray 3D titles). I expect they’re right about that, and it’ll be good for their revenues even with piracy occupying the same space it does now. They’re not trying to stamp out piracy, they just want to sell a lot of TVs, BD-Players, and Blu-Ray titles!

    Don’t get me wrong… piracy is absolutely a factor in some of these moves. Jeffrey Katzenberg has explicitly stated that he expects 3D Blu-Ray to “reduce piracy”. This also explains his decision that Dreamworks will now produce ONLY 3D movies. Katzenberg thinks he can use 3D as a lure to draw moviegoers back into theaters (and he’s right, to a point), and to keep movies out of pirates’ hands, by dazzling them with this strange, new technology which confounds their pirate ways. (And anyone who buys into that idea must be suffering from even worse 3D-glasses-induced brain damage than Katzenberg!)

    But, Katzenberg aside, the home entertainment industry is eager and ready to bring 3D to the masses. Only problem is, because of Katzenberg’s decision to beat 3D to death as quickly as possible, consumers may be so disillusioned with the parade of lackluster pointless-3D movies following in Alice in Wonderland‘s footsteps, that even the new technology amounts to nothing but a fad that’s over before it even really began.

    …Wow, this got really long. My apologies!

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