Alice in Wonderland | Adventure/Fantasy | rated PG | starring Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Johnny Depp, Ann Hathaway, Crispin Glover | directed by Tim Burton | 1:48 mins
With an aristocratic arranged marriage on her head, 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska, In Treatment) falls down a rabbit hole, shrinks to get through a doorway and is consistently told that she is the wrong Alice by talking creatures. In this bizarre place called Underland she learns that the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her army have taken over and Alice with the help of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) must find a way to overthrow Red Queen’s tyranical rule.
Even though he’s coming off of one of his career highs (Sweeney Todd), I’m sure I was in the majority who saw that Tim Burton would be doing a remake of Alice in Wonderland starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter and went “of course” with an eye-roll. Burton’s signiture visual style promising unique, creepy visuals and a rebellious attitude toward leaving the audience unsatisfied yet asking for more has become a reputation that far outlives the work to justify it. It is even harder to swallow now, that Sweeney Todd proved the director actually can mold a mature and genuinely funny and entertaining movie out of his macabre style. But Disney’s Alice in Wonderland takes Burton squarely back to the remake gallery that lines his worst movies with a script that clings tightly to Disney’s vision of Lewis Carroll’s classic fable.
Working with an Avatar-like level of CGI without James Cameron’s ability to immerse you in the special effects, Alice looks and feels very flat. It’s hard to shake the detaching notion that we’re seeing actors against a green screen. But the CGI Burton applies to the actors, such as giving Helena Bonham Carter a bulbous head for the Red Queen, is an interesting effect and the first time in a long time I saw a special effect I wasn’t immediately sure how it was done.
The story is a half-hearted hybrid of being a sequel following the events of Alice in Wonderland, and a direct remake remaking and recreating entire scenes from the original, putting it square in the shadow of Disney’s 1951 animated Alice in Wonderland which with it’s musical numbers, charming personality and Unbirthdays is still pretty much the gold standard of the story. Burton’s idea for taking it in a different direction is to turn his Alice into a revolution movie in which all of the odd Underland residents have to come together to over-throw the Red Queen in battle. It forces Alice from anything-can-happen funhouse ride to familiar genre movie territory. All in all, there is a lot of creativity with the visual conception of the characters – Tweedle Dee and Dumb and the playing card warriors are my favorites – but then Burton doesn’t do much of anything with them.
Johnny Depp continues to be a rare Hollywood star who boldly takes unflattering character roles most leading men are too full of themselves to touch. You won’t see Tom Cruise playing the Mad Hatter. But despite his top billing, it’s really Helena Bonham Carter who steals the movie. Her portrayal is the quintessential Red Queen, an arrogant, spoiled, lonely, somewhat childish and wanting to be feared ruler. She’s the best reason to see the movie. “I love my fat boys”.
After having stole the show in In Treatment, Mia Wasidowska also stands as a good Alice, at first timid, she grows into the formidable heroine who we believe could slay a dragon. The sequence where she psyches herself up to slay it is the movie’s best.
Alice in Wonderland is pretty decent eye-candy, but a shallow and forgettable movie that squanders an opportunity to really delve into the story, apply Burton’s gothic creepy style and do something fresh with it.