The magic is gone. December 1990. Edward Scissorhands arrives in theaters. It was the first collaboration between star Johnny Depp and director Tim Burton. In the twenty years since its release they have collaborated six other times. Though the six years in between Sleepy Hollow and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory they saw other people. With the release of Alice in Wonderland I think it’s time they have another trial separation.
Tim Burton is a gifted filmmaker, but the quality of his films seems to have tapered. You have to go back several years to find one that is truly great versus being very good or good. With Pee Wee’s Big Adventure and Beetle Juice being near and dear to my childhood, to see Burton’s idiosyncratic mind wasted on stuff like Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – sorry Johnny, Gene’s still the better Willy Wonka – it shows that Burton has to trudge through remakes or new adaptations of classic literature to make sure he has enough coin in his piggy bank. People going to Alice in Wonderland will see a lavish spectacle but also must endure a narrative monstrosity.
Straying far from Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Burton puts his own creative spin on the material. Alice isn’t the Alice we remember from the Disney animated classic. She’s much older, without a ring on her finger and no man to call her own. And when a suitor with a gastric problem asks for her hand in marriage, Alice runs and falls once again down the rabbit hole and encounters all the people and talking animals she did when she was a kid. Only she has no recollection of ever being there – though we know better. Her presence in Wonderland (or is it Burtonland?) is to help save the kingdom once again by ousting the Red Queen and putting her more angelic sibling, the White Queen, back in charge.
Alice in Wonderland has the shape shifting we know to expect, but we also get many chase sequences, including one with an ending that is worse than Ralphie and his pityingly little Red Ryder BB Gun incident. When Alice (Mia Wasikowska) arrives in Wonderland there is doubt that she isn’t the right Alice. The White Rabbit and others suspect as much. Alice thinks it’s all a dream that is strangely familiar – like one she’s been having ever since childhood. Even with the familiarity, however, Alice still thinks they got wrong person.
If this all sounds a little too Hook-ish, you probably aren’t far off in that regard. It crossed my mind quite a few times watching Alice get up to speed about the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her bulbous forehead; Stayne, the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), and the queen’s top henchman; the White Queen (Anne Hathaway); and a smoking caterpillar (to which the MPAA points out as one of the factors in giving the film its PG rating).
With Alice back in Wonderland and the foretelling that it is she who helps restore order to the kingdom, the Red Queen gets all hot and bothered and orders Stayne to get her. Thankfully Alice meets Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp looking like the offspring of Carrot Top and a packet of LSD) first; the only one who knows from the start that she is the right Alice. Hatter puts her on the path to the sword she will need to slay the Jabberwock, a mystical dragon creature that must be killed so that order can be restored.
Burton’s take on Carroll’s works presents us the standard hero’s tale (or heroine’s tale in this case) that requires her to go on a quest. It’s a quest that not only makes her find the heroism within but also instills in her important life lessons that she can take with her as makes the trip back to the real world. It’s a good approach if Burton was making Chronicles of Wonderland, but this adventure meanders to the point of being boring. Every once in a while the Red Queen will belt out an “OFF WITH HIS HEAD!” to make sure we’re awake.
Moving swiftly from plot point A to plot point B and so forth, there’s little time to dillydally. As Alice finishes up meeting Mad Hatter and others, she’s already making her way to the next step of her quest. This would be easy to accept if the story was salvaged by strong performances and a great 3-D presentation, but we get neither. Bonham Carter was quite funny in her role, more so because of her elongated forehead than anything else. Johnny Depp, who is regarded by many as a supreme acting talent, plays a wacky character once again, and shows that he needs to take a break from playing characters with foreign accents. Anne Hathaway’s performance is minimal but also irritating. It appears her only screen direction was to pretend the White Queen was a pale-faced ballerina who could never lower her arms below a certain angle.
Newcomer Mia Wasikowska is one of the few standouts, playing Alice as a vulnerable lass who is independent and determined, both of which help to strengthen her character. Of the talking creatures, it is Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat who will probably be most beloved by viewers. His appearances, though short, help to drive the film out of its muddling stupor.
Despite these two performances, Alice in Wonderland will always be a Depp-Burton picture. And until the next collaboration takes place, it will remain their biggest misfire. While Burton’s personal piggy bank is growing because of films like this and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, his creativity is in default, after brimming with the likes of Beetle Juice and Edward Scissorhands. Alice in Wonderland is artistically well made, but not an engaging film overall. A personal plea to Burton: Stop with putting a new spin on old classics and work to restore your creative spark.
Director: Tim Burton
Notable Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman
Writer(s): Linda Woolverton, based on the books by Lewis Carroll