The new Alice in Wonderland, based partly on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking-Glass, and poem "The Jabberwocky," follows Alice 19 years after her original trip to Wonderland. She is no less curious and amused that she was then, but she now believes that her previous adventures were all a dream. In her reality, she is faced with the forced marriage to the pigish Hamish, as per Victorian tradition. Fleeing the wedding to chase a white rabbit (the same she had followed before), she stumbles down the rabbit hole again, only this time Wonderland (now called Underland) is a dark, mysterious place thanks to the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her dragon, the Jabberwocky. Alice is told that she must defeat the Jabberwocky and restore Underland's crown to the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, finally graduating in royalty from princess), and along the way meets the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the March Hare, Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and the rest of Wonderland's bizarre denizens.
This is Disney's new take on the story, which director Tim Burton has called in numerous interviews the "definitive" version of the story. However, this version is perhaps the least definitive of the various Alices over the years, namely because the whole production is a sloppy mess of a film. Rather than serving as a new retelling of the classic story, this Alice is a Disneyfied Frankenstein's monster of fantasy clichés, all rooted in the rah-rah girlpower attitude of many Disney Renaissance films (not surprising, given that writer Linda Woolverton also wrote Beauty and the Beast and Mulan).
But what’s really disappointing here is the fact that this is a Tim Burton movie. Burton is an auteur of the bizarre, drawn to weirdos who reside in gothic fantasy worlds. It’s a well that he’s drawn from many times (Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sleepy Hollow, Beetlejuice, Batman, Sweeney Todd), often to excellent effect. His style may not be constantly evolving, but he has proven himself to be very good at what he does, so its been forgivable. This is what makes his Alice in Wonderland so maddeningly disappointing. On paper, it was the perfect pairing of source and director, like David Fincher taking on the Zodiac killer or Steven Spielberg adapting H.G. Wells, and many, myself included, were anxiously awaiting what kind of strangely beautiful images and characters he would bring. Instead, what we get is perhaps the least Burtonesque film since his Planet of the Apes; Burton is obviously working in blockbuster mode, and rather than trying to create a personal film, he tries to emulate Peter Jackson and James Cameron to disastrous results. He seems almost bored with his direction, and instead of new, inventive visuals we get images that do little to fascinate us.
Johnny Depp, too, is oddly disappointing as the Mad Hatter. It’s another idea that seemed great on paper, and Depp has said that he and Burton were aiming to add depth to the character, but the result is the exact opposite of depth. I wouldn’t call his Hatter shallow, either, just irascibly confusing. Depp alternates between a heavy Scottish brogue and a feminine lisp, sometimes utilizing both in the same sentence. He prances around like Jack Sparrow in Pirates of the Caribbean: The Musical, and performs a mind-numbingly cheesy jig that not even the smallest children would find amusing. And he looks like a mad-cap Kabuki Carrot Top. There’s no character here, just an image that both Burton and Depp obviously found interesting and did nothing to develop it further. This goes for most of the characters put on screen here: they’re designs, but nothing else.
There are two notable exceptions here, and the irony is that they are supposed to be the strongest characters in the story: the hero, Alice, and the villain, the Red Queen. Mia Wasikowska makes for a wonderful Alice, transcending the role by lending the character a natural curiosity and becomes a channel for the audience’s disbelief in what she witnesses in Underland. Helena Bonham Carter, head distorted into a monumental orb, is gleefully campy in her role as the Red Queen, shouting “Off with their heads!” chirpily. Her scenes with Wasikowska are among the best in the film. Behind the camera, Colleen Atwood’s costumes dazzle, even if they are a little Victorian-age-meets-riot-grrl.
Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen
Overall, Alice in Wonderland should have been a perfect match for Burton’s unique style. Instead, it lacks originality, spirit, and most importantly, wonder.