CAPSULE: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)

DIRECTED BY: Tim Burton

FEATURING: , Johnny Depp, the head of , , voices of Stephen Fry and Christopher Lee

PLOT:  About to be proposed to by a doltish fop, Alice excuses herself to tumble down a rabbit hole where she learns she has been chosen to slay the Jabberwock[y].

Still from Alice in Wonderland (2010)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST:  Not weird enough.  Burton, perhaps fearful of angering the gravy-train drivers at Disney, dims down the absurdity in this version of Alice, recasting the tale as an epic fantasy war fought by a cast of weirdos.

COMMENTSAlice in Wonderland (which should have been titled Alice in Underland, if anyone had been paying attention) is a good-looking film with a few positives, but a recycled story that’s far from enchanting.  The candy-colored visuals are as top-notch as expected, with plenty of little details to soak in: look for a dragonfly-sized flying rocking horse and a moat with floating stones that appear to be petrified severed heads.  Helena Bonham Carter’s macrocephalic visage is almost worth the price of admission, and her performance as the Red Queen is suitably comic and imperious.  But the story—ouch!  Alice’s previous visit to Wonderland—oops, make that Underland, as it’s denizens insist it’s properly called—nine years ago was real, but she’s forgotten it for some reason, which is fine because her past adventures served no purpose whatsoever.  In this sequel, the poem “Jabberwocky” is a prophecy that predicts Alice will find the vorpal blade and snicker-snack it into the neck of the dreaded Jabberwock(y) on Frabjous Day.  The Mad Hatter reads the verse word for word to the disbelieving Alice, neither of them noticing that the lines refer to a “beamish boy;” Alice may be beamish, but she’s no boy.  But who cares about such details?  They can’t even get the monster’s name right after reading it off the page: everyone refers to the Jabberwock as the “Jabberwocky” (which is like calling Odysseus “Odyssey”).  We may wonder about such inconsistencies, but such uffish considerations only matter in a tightly constructed nonsense world like Wonderland; we’re in Underland, and here there are quirky companions to collect before galumphing off to slay dragons with magical swords.  Burton’s non-nonsense epic fantasy plays like an original concept by Lewis Carroll that’s been script doctored by J.R.R. Tolkien, then sent back by the corporate suits to add more fight scenes to appeal to boys and a feminist moral about self-actualization for the girls.  Despite the occasional chase scene by a pack of guards who look as much like Terminator robots as playing cards, curiously, for the most part the early story plays out much as in Carroll’s tale.  Alice retraces her steps, eating and drinking shrinking and growing potions and cakes and meets a hookah smoking Caterpillar.  The Cheshire Cat directs her to a mad tea party.  But things get less and less curiouser and more and more familiarer as the tale continues.  It turns out that the tea party really isn’t mad, it’s just a ruse by the Resistance to avoid detection by the authorities. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter isn’t mad either (and certainly not bonkers); perhaps he’s slightly perturbed, but his faculties are all about him as leads the fight for freedom, even taking up a sword for the final battle.  I have no problem with taking liberties with Carroll’s tone and story, but if you’re going to depart from the original you should replace it with something interesting, not just a generic fantasy quest rehash.  Nick Willing’s Alice, with it’s human “oysters” being drained of their emotions, tapped into a more cusiously skewed Alice scenario.  It’s a shame that that premise couldn’t have been matched to this budget.  Tim Burton’s Alice isn’t bad, it’s just forgettable—something that could only happen in Underland, not Wonderland.

To some extent, Burton may be the victim of high expectations.  Carroll and Burton seemed the perfect match, and there were high hopes that this material might allow Tim to return to the glory days of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and The Nightmare Before Christmas, when his fantasies managed to tap the popular consciousness while still dripping with edgy originality. Those of us who got our hopes up should have recognized that Alice in Wonderland is a kids’ movie intended as a blockbuster; Disney isn’t about to let Burton take chances with the story.  His commission directed him to deliver Tim Burton visuals inside a safe script, and that’s what he did.  The movie works fine for the little ones, but offers little to adults besides eye candy and a couple of chuckles.  If Burton’s going to bounce back (and I’m starting to doubt he ever will), we’ll have to wait until he feels like he’s finally garnered enough dough and Hollywood validation to start taking chances again.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…neither is [Burton’s] Alice, sad to report, in the least bit lysergic. On the contrary, the movie is positively sober in its positive image projection and concern with itself as a business model. Like more than one recent movie, Alice seems a trailer for a Wonderland computer game—and it is. The final battle is clearly designed for gaming.”–J. Hobermann, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

5 thoughts on “CAPSULE: ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)”

  1. One of the most delightfully subversive characters in English literature, The Mad Hatter, was completely defanged and apparently lobotomized. Even the Disney animated version of the ’50’s had more balls (and certainly more charm) than this detestable over-produced monstrosity.

  2. All of the works of Tim Burton can be considered as a work of art. He has his own style that is very unique and cannot be found from other movie directors.,:.`:

    Warmest regards
    [Advertising link removed–I’m 90% sure this is spam that was accidentally on topic-ed.]

  3. Perhaps we should just be thankful that the romantic sub-plot in which Alice and the Hatter share two passionate kisses was cut (one kiss was actually filmed, but don’t expect to see it among the DVD extras any time soon). Though there is one line still in there which creepily hints that he’s fancied her since she was seven – “You’re always either too big or too small.”

    Perhaps you could sum up this film’s failings by observing that a character who is clearly supposed to be the Queen of Hearts is here called the Red Queen – in the book, a perfectly sane and very helpful character whose worst fault is being a little bossy – she’s certainly no deranged head-lopping villain! Presumably Disney was afraid that a tiny handful of people might think this was in some way a dig at the sacred memory of Lady Di.

    However, adult viewers may notice that the “happy ending”, during which Alice shows how feisty and unconventional she is by behaving in a fashion which would probably have gotten a real Victorian teenage girl locked up, culminates in her would-be father-in-law, a man about three times her age, suddenly inviting her to go and live with him as some sort of “business partner”, because obviously slightly unbalanced but very pretty teenage girls with no close family ties are going to be really good at running huge multinational corporations, aren’t they? I wonder haw that relationship worked out?

    Oh, and that odd, seeningly irrelevant little comment at the very end, when Alice announces that she plans to open up trade links with China? Perhaps another sly admission from Tim Burton that he just made this neutered travesty for the money, since if Alice did in fact do this, she embraced capitalism (probably literally, in the form of a much older but very rich man) so successfully that she was directly responsible for the Opium Wars.

  4. On the DVD commentary of “Pirates of the Caribbean”, Depp notes that his flirtation scene with Keira Knightley made him feel like a dirty old man, so no wonder the similar scenes with Wasikowska were cut.

  5. I saw this in a theater with a friend, and what I was really amused by was a historical detail at the end that the scriptwriter(s) and producers obviously missed. It ends with Alice opening trade to China. Well, at that particular time period what Britain sold to China was opium; which was one of the main contributers to the distruction of Chinese culture, weakening China and leaving it vulnerable to European colonization. In short, our cute Disney heroine is about to commit one of history’s great atrocities.

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