Alice in Wonderland reviewed

Alice in Wonderland, the new film from director Tim Burton has been highly anticipated by his fans, as well as lovers of fantasy cinema, since the project was first announced back in 2007. Expectations were high not only because of the knowledge that Burton would be applying his typically eccentric visual style to an already offbeat universe created by novelist Lewis Carroll, but also because Alice was to see the visionary director working under the Disney banner. Disney remains, of course, an iconic name when it comes to the production of premium family film entertainment. Unfortunately though, Alice in Wonderland – released just this last week – falls short of its potential. The film is a mixed bag, succeeding marvellously in some areas and failing to satisfy at all in others.

Let’s consider the good first.

Alice in Wonderland starts well, with a 19 year old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) having to contend with the bizarre social norms and expectations of Victorian England, as she is expected to marry a repulsive young lord to secure herself a financially stable future. The absurdity and artificiality of this world comes through strongly to Alice, and the audience, and it is in these few short scenes that the ridiculousness so central to Carroll’s books is conveyed. Even if it is apparent from the outset that this Alice in Wonderland will not be faithful to the original story, it is possible to forgive the changes in plot because the essence of the source material remains intact.

Once Alice falls down a rabbit hole and ends up in Wonderland, however, this essence evaporates. The expected, much loved characters are pretty much all there – the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen), Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas), the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), among others – but the exasperating absurdity is gone. The inhabitants of Wonderland seem almost entirely compos mentis. Even the crazy tea party trio of the Mad Hatter, March Hare and Dormouse are mostly faking their insanity as opposed to being genuinely unhinged.

The result is that Alice in Wonderland starts feeling very much like a clone of C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles, as opposed to stemming from the work of Lewis Carroll. Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is in fact strongly reminiscent of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, with Wonderland (renamed Underland for some strange reason) changed into a subdued, fear paralysed world under the control of the bulbous headed Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) – who frequently dispatches a death squad to capture her detractors and bring them back to her palace for beheading. Many of the talking animals and other creatures of Wonderland have formed themselves into an underground resistance, waiting for the day when, according to prophesy, Alice will return as a saviour to liberate them from the Red Queen.

Frankly it seems strange, and quite disappointing, to take something as idiosyncratic as Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, and bash and chip away at all the elements until they fit another easily identifiable, and very overused, fantasy formula. There are a few brief flashbacks to Alice’s original visit to Wonderland in the movie and you can’t help but wish the filmmakers had made a more faithful adaptation of the original text, utilising the same visual styling that they employ here.

The visual styling of the world and the character design are in fact the two major selling points of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. Although the actors who get to show their real faces in the film turn in solid and appropriately quirky performances, it’s the CGI creatures who steal the show. Particular standouts include the Cheshire Cat, the grumpy, octogenarian-looking Caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman) and the absolutely fantastic Jabberwocky, who briefly gets to speak with the always imposing voice of Christopher Lee. Frankly, many of these characters don’t have nearly enough screen time to fully appreciate them.

In terms of character design in general, there are several gratifying parallels between the denizens of Wonderland and the people Alice knows in 19th Century England. So the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) is as lecherous as Alice’s brother-in-law, while Alice’s imagination-bankrupt, ginger-haired suitor has a counterpart in the form of the similarly ginger, but emotionally unrestrained Mad Hatter, who curiously is portrayed as a kind of love interest for Alice.

The love interest angle isn’t the only strange decision to emerge in this new Alice in Wonderland. Almost every Wonderland inhabitant has a proper, but utterly bizarre, and therefore highly distracting, name. The Red Queen is Iracebeth for example, the Knave of Hearts Ilosovic Stayne, and, worst of all, the White Rabbit is Tmctwisp.

Then there is the strange inconsistency in terms of violent content. Even if the Disney name is attached these days to darker PG-13 projects like Pirates of the Caribbean, it’s still a shock to encounter graphic violence in a family film. In Alice in Wonderland every so often a moment of surprising savagery or darkness will spring from nowhere. Eyeballs are gouged out, there’s a decapitation or two and the Queen of Heart’s moat is literally blood red and full of bobbing, decaying heads. The impression the viewer receives from these instances is that the film could have been much blacker in tone but the filmmakers and studio were too tentative about pushing the project into “Mature Audiences Only” territory. Once again, you are left with a feeling of lost potential.

There are a few other gripes to be had with Alice in Wonderland – most to do with basic logic. Without giving too much away, why, if the Red Queen is so intent on ruling unopposed, doesn’t she just stage a full scale attack on the castle of her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), instead of letting mutineers continually rally to her side? Why does the winged Jabberwocky never use flight to his advantage in combat? And finally, and this is most irritating of all for readers of Jane Austen and the Brontes, how can Alice so easily achieve her happy ending in sexist 19th Century England?

In the end, Tim Burton’s new take on Alice in Wonderland has a lot of problems, particularly in terms of story and tone. This said, for every negative, there is some visual treat or engaging action sequence – such as Alice riding the Bandersnatch, and the final chessboard battle – which tug it away from turkeydom, or, rather, complete mediocrity. Alice in Wonderland isn’t quite as magical and immersive in 3D as Avatar, but like James Cameron’s film a second viewing is probably required to truly appreciate the imagination that has gone into creating its rich world. It’s such a pity though that Alice in Wonderland is just so inconsistently entertaining, and frankly, not nearly as much fun as it could have been.


Dante said…
The best thing about seeing this movie in 3d was the trailer for X Games 3d: The Movie.
MJenks said…
Meh. I'll put it on the "see it if you can" list, but probably I'll tell myself to rent the DVD and then never get around to doing that, either.
Pfangirl said…
Dante, I thought that looked pretty cool too - like movies made specifically for IMAX I think those films made for 3D always utilize the technology and look better than those that are just converted for the medium.

MJenks, a "meh" is quite appropriate.
Paul Crilley said…
I quite enjoyed it, only because I told myself not to expect a faithful adaptation. Even so, I was surprised by the fantasy trope storyline, even if the Vorpal sword etc are all from Caroll's imagination.

Kind of expected Alice to meet Depp as a sort of real-world analogue of the Hatter on her return to England, someone who accepted her view of life and respected her, but was just as whimsical. But I suppose they wanted to show that Alice didn't need a man for happiness.
Pfangirl said…
Hmmm, Paul, I think I would have preferred your ending. I know it would be anti-feminist, but given the social context, it would have made more sense and been a lot more credible.

Honestly, if Alice had behaved in reality like she did at the end of the film, she would have ended up as some lowly, socially-shunned governess or just like her mad aunt.
Paul Crilley said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Paul Crilley said…
hah. Totally agree. Sort of like Pullman's series featuring Sally Lockheart. All the man are first shocked, then grudgingly admiring. Er... no, they wouldn't be.

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