BRIEF SYNOPSIS: On the day of her engagement to Hamish Ascot, nineteen-year-old Alice Kingsley follows a white rabbit in a waistcoat down a rabbit hole leading to Wonderland, where, with the help of an eccentric group of characters, she must defeat the Red Queen.
PROS: A good cast with occasionally interesting flourishes of character and scenery. And it’s hard not to love Alan Rickman’s hookah-smoking caterpillar.
CONS: Uninvolving and, despite the 3D rendering, often flat.
It shouldn’t have been this way. Given the cast involved, given the director’s knack for the grotesque and the surreal, to say nothing of the source material, this Alice in Wonderland should have been a marvel, a milestone in the development of fantasy cinema. After all, the logical games and off-the-wall situations presented by Lewis Carroll in both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There parallel much of the nonsense language and narrative dissociation one sometimes feels living in this first decade of the twenty-first century. It is also, in a way, the movie Tim Burton has been preparing to make since Frankenweenie. Whether or not his movies have taken place in Pee Wee’s Playhouse or Gotham City, whether or not he has followed such characters as Edward Scissorhands or Sweeny Todd, he has always taken his audience to some zip code deep in his own Wonderland.
More’s the pity that his Alice is as vapid as a Cosmopolitan cover girl, and that this particular trip down the rabbit hole is less engaging than the (very engaging) levels in the game Bioshock. It can’t even measure up to the other screen iterations of Alice, from the silent film directed by Cecil Hepworth in 1903 to the wonderfully demented stop-motion Nêco z Alenky. (Note: I have not seen the animated Disney adaptation, and at this point I don’t plan on doing so.)
Though most already know the basic story, there’s actually enough new material to provide a plot synopsis. Now orphaned Alice Kingsley, nineteen and often disturbed by dreams of odd creatures, attends a party at a Victorian home which, she learns, is in fact an engagement party. As Hamish Ascot proposes to her in front of numerous partygoers, Alice spies the White Rabbit and follows him down a rabbit hole to Underland. While there, she learns that the Red Queen Iracebeth (played by Helena Bonham Carter) has stolen the crown of this imaginary landscape from her sister, the White Queen Mirana (Anne Hathaway). Alice, it seems, used to visit this land as a child (though she has no memory of it), and is the center of a prophecy which tells of her slaying the Red Queen’s Jabberwocky, thus releasing Underland from the Red Queen’s rule.
If it sounds familiar, it does so despite having absolutely nothing to do with Lewis Carroll’s novels. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton used the books as a jumping off point for what might have been an interesting retelling of Alice’s adventures, with the theme of encroaching adulthood and a degree of welcome feminism tossed into the original Victorian tale. Unfortunately, Woolverton has decided to retell the stories of both Jonathan Carroll’s novel Bones of the Moon and Neil Gaiman’s A Game of You with such fidelity that it’s shame neither author receives screen credit. In doing so, she also sacrifices both the satire of Victorian manners and mores and the mathematical play that make the original work part of the fun.
One could forgive these shortcomings were the characters more engaging, or even if their eccentricities were played up. And with a cast that includes Alan Rickman, Crispen Glover and Johnny Depp, one anticipates watching them chew the digital scenery until it’s nothing but a binary paste. But Woolverton draws them too broadly to make their eccentricities stand out, and doesn’t give them enough room to make those eccentricities believable. Moreover, Tim Burton, who never met an actor whom he couldn’t get to overplay his role, instead chooses to muzzle his thespians, thus muting any exuberance or even joy that the viewer might take. Here he could have learned from Robert Altman’s underrated Popeye, which featured characters so quirky that the viewer became dizzy just trying to keep up.
Worse, Burton chose to direct a retelling of Alice that plays to his greatest weakness. Though Burton shines when presenting odd images and surreal landscapes, his movies seldom work on a narrative level. Indeed, his best movies work when merely a series of vignettes (Mars Attacks!, Big Fish) rather than anything with an overarching, coherent plot (both of his Batman movies, Sleepy Hollow). Here he must tell a story involving courtly intrigue and prophecies fulfilled, and it becomes obvious fairly early on that his heart just isn’t in it. A screenplay sticking close to the books, with their disjointed, episodic structure, would have served him much better.
Even the visuals fail to inspire wonder. Burton could have flooded the screen with garish colors and frentic action. Instead, he films Alice in Wonderland as a muddy wasteland, often grimy and sluggish, lacking vitality or interest, and bereft of what should be a delicious blend of menace and joy. Oddly enough, the scenes that take place in Victorian England have more life than those in Underland. (Granted, Underland is supposed to be a wasteland due to the Red Queen’s rule, but her character is so broadly drawn that seeing the connection proves difficult, even when it’s baldly stated.)
Occasionally the movie manages some cleverness, and provides glimpses of what it might have been. When Alice meets the Red Queen at her castle, she stumbles on a name to give her, finally calling herself “Um from Umbridge.” During a climactic battle sequence between the Red Queen’s and the White Queen’s armies, one character knocks down the Red Queen’s soldiers exactly like the deck of cards that they are. And it’s hard not to grin like the Cheshire Cat when one hears Alan Rickman’s droll Absolem the Caterpillar.
It shouldn’t have been this way. This new Alice in Wonderland should have been full of the wonder which makes the books so fascinating, even almost a hundred and fifty years later, and especially in the hands of Tim Burton. Alas, perhaps this time Burton’s took a page not from Lewis Carroll but from Thomas Wolfe: you can’t go home again.