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.

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