Alice in Wonderland (Burton, 2010)
Tim Burton’s adaptation of the musical Sweeney Todd signaled a possible return to form for the director whose work has become intermittently successful. The 2000’s were a very uneven decade for him. Starting out with his worst film to date Planet of the Apes, then moving on to the refreshing personal work that was Big Fish and then on to the mediocre Corpse Bride and the horrid Charlie and the Chocolate Factory finally moving to the fantastic Sweeney Todd. Will this decade be better for Burton? He certainly is not getting off to a good start with Alice in Wonderland, a film in the same league of misfire as his first film of the 2000’s, Planet of the Apes.
While Burton adapting Lewis Carroll seems like a match made in heaven in concept, it isn’t when Disney is thrown into the mix along with Burton’s visually exploratory ambition missing in action. Disney, who requested that Burton direct their planned live action adaptation, takes out any elements of Carroll and instead puts in elements of other works that don’t belong in the author’s created world. The nonsense, pointlessness, narcissism, exploratory structure, satire and humor are gone. Also gone, with the decision to have Alice be 19, is the journey of a child’s acceptance into the world she is part of. This change would have been interesting if the film had replaced the themes of the original with something worthwhile. Instead Wonderland, or as it has been transformed in the film, Underland, is a place filled with purpose and seriousness with underwritten characters galore who are far too humanized and underdeveloped to justify the decision to change the basic characteristics of nearly everyone.
The main plot involves Alice played by Mia Wasikowska, now 19 with no memory of having gone to Wonderland as a young girl. On the day that she unknowingly attends her engagement party and flees a marriage proposal in front of everyone, she finds herself going own the rabbit hole once again and seeing Underland, a deadened version of Wonderland due to the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter) taking over the land from her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). With help from The Mad Hatter and others, Alice sets out on her task to fulfill her destiny. She is now a chosen one, with a mission to carry out which involves slaying the Jabberwocky because it is foretold in an oracle in the form of a scroll…or something.
One of the main problems with the plot, bad on nearly all counts in its execution, is that 20 minutes into the film it is revealed exactly where the climax is headed and what will take place within it. While we can safely assume that the film will end happily that does not give screenwriter Woolverton the right to insert the exact circumstances of where Alice’s journey will end. That greatly decreases story involvement right off the bat and diffuses any sustained interest. In the film, Wonderland is a place where things actually happen; where events take place followed by consequences and long term effects are felt by Wonderland’s inhabitants. This grounds the world with a purpose and tangibility which takes away Carroll’s intentions on every level. Again, doing something this critical to the author’s intention needs to be justified by the quality of the storytelling but Disney, Burton and Woolverton do nothing to justify their bastardization. Luckily though, the first 10 minutes of the film, the last 2 minutes and probably 9 minutes in the midst of the wasteland that is the rest of the film are well done. At least it starts and ends on a good note.
Surely the contrivances can be made up for by the visuals? No. Burton feels like he is sleepwalking through this endeavor. Not only is there very little creativity gone into making a unique world filled with surprises but the effects themselves are consistently self conscious and mediocre. The idea of Underland should have brought a lot of interesting concepts to the table. How do you make Wonderland look and feel broken down? Dead? Ravished and decayed? Apparently you don’t do much. The world neither popped or amazed; in fact it was boring. There should have been a level of fascinating discovery and unpredictability to the visuals but instead Underland becomes mere background. Something needs to fill the screen, right?
Add to all of this the weak characterization and the making of a truly bad film begin to emerge. The White Rabbit has gone from fidgety and impatient to….nothing. He has no character at all. The Caterpillar retains his sense of frustration and wisdom but his wisdom is placed in a context making him merely a storytelling prop. The White Queen has not one line of characterization and Anne Hathaway, severely miscast is left to theatrical mannerisms and delivery in order to infuse some sense of character into someone who on the page could be anybody. Tweedledee and Tweedledum quibble a bit and represent more indifference. The Cheshire Cat is kind of sly and clever but floats around with lines that don’t assert his character to the extent they should.
Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter is the biggest misfire of all. His Hatter is all about changing accents and mumbling his words so nobody can understand them. This performance is another bag of eccentricities and accents combined with an extreme appearance but it does not work this time. He is uninteresting to watch and annoying at times. While the concept behind humanizing him is interesting, the execution of it is wishy-washy. If the performance itself had been different, maybe this aspect of the film would have been more successful. Depp’s incomprehensible rabble is so forced and uninteresting that he buries most of the character’s intentions with his eccentricity overload. And wait till you get to his dance move because it could be the most quintessential jump the shark moment in a film in recent memory.
There were a few characters that did work. The March Hare was pure insanity with humor to boot but is used far too little. Bayard was mildly interesting and Stayne (Crispin Glover) was underwhelming but was acceptable in comparison to other characterizations the film had to offer.
The only truly successful aspect of the entire film is Helena Bonham-Carter’s performance as The Red Queen. While her lines are questionable, Bonham-Carter not only makes the dialogue work to her advantage but she actually manages to be consistently funny and entertaining, creating a very memorable character and performance. She actually creates something and works with what she is given in a way that helped her instead of drowning her in poor writing ala Hathaway. Her scenes are entertaining and her presence livens up the film every time she appears. Not only is she great but she looks fantastic managing to be the only visually satisfying character.
Mia Wasikowska carries the film as Alice. Without her, this would have been unwatchable. She does a really nice job, managing to keep the film somewhat interesting with her stunning presence. Her fabulous work on the first season of “In Treatment” revealed her as a young actress to watch and judging by her upcoming projects, she is about to make a stamp in the ingénue world.
Between the thin and contrived plot, the absence of wonder and unpredictability and visual creativity and the underwritten and uninteresting characters (outside of the Red Queen), Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is no more than a snoozefest; a visual bore surrounded by a bad script makes for a weak retelling of Carroll’s story that lacks his spirit and misses the point of the author’s lack of purpose. Maybe if this had not been a Disney film but a project that was allowed to go to dark places maybe something could have come of it. Maybe. However, the success of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, a PG film reeking of danger, paranoia and oncoming dread managed to be impressively moody and dark, rendering Alice in Wonderland’s family friendly PG rating a weak excuse for the film’s failure. Basically; go watch Jan Svankmajer’s version.