The movie basically operates as a sequel to Carroll’s book. It’s been 10 years or so since Alice (Mia Wasikowska) first went to Wonderland, and she’s convinced herself it was all just a dream. She’s now 19, and finds herself bristling at traditional Victorian life. She is being encouraged to marry a rich buffoon she doesn’t love because he can give her a secure future. But she doesn’t really want that kind of life, and when she sees the White Rabbit again, she decides to follow it down its hole.
When she arrives again in Wonderland, Alice finds that, since she left, the placlinda wooveretone has fallen under the dominion of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who has led the land to ruin. Alice discovers that everyone from the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) to the Cheshire Cat and the March Hare are engaged in a conspiracy to overthrow the Red Queen and replace her with her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). All they need is a champion.
As a fantasy adventure story, the film works fairly well, even if it sags a bit in the middle and some of the story beats feel a little familiar. For what it is, it works fine; but what it is doesn’t feel like Alice in Wonderland. When I think back on the books, what I remember most fondly from them are Carroll’s wonderfully weird satire, his logic games and the feeling that absolutely anything could happen, even if most of it was delightfully nonsensical. However, Alice in a suit of armor, fighting the Jabberwocky with a sword, doesn’t feel like Carroll’s world to me.
This film’s script, written by Linda Woolverton, takes the characters and trappings of the books and crams them into a Narnia- or Lord of the Rings-style take on quests and combat, with little of Carroll’s playfulness or knack for dream logic. There are some moments of genuine weirdness sprinkled throughout—the Cheshire Cat wafting across the screen, the red moat that surrounds the Red Queen’s castle full of severed heads, or the way Crispin Glover’s character, the Knave of Hearts, seems to have limbs that are all independently controlled—but they are all found in a story that feels a little too familiar.
But perhaps more distressing is the direction Burton’s career has taken in recent years. When he first burst onto the scene, with such films as Edward Scissorhands, his work seemed fabulously weird and possessed of a singular vision. Mere motion pictures seemed hardly able to contain his capacious personality. But since then, his style has sadly been commoditized. These days, he merely takes a classic story, like Alice or Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and slaps his trademark quirk onto it like a coat of paint. Burton has become a brand more than anything else, and that oddball spark that animated his early films mostly seems to have faded away.
Burton remains visually inventive—as evidenced by the bizarre landscapes and weird beasties seen in this film—but his films, as with Alice, can seem oddly impersonal. There is some terrific CGI on display here, but despite the presence of an evaporating cat, a mouse with a fondness for poking out eyes and a caterpillar that smokes a hookah, Alice in Wonderland rarely feels wondrous. Burton fails to make the story running through the pixels gel narratively or thematically, and his use of 3D is rather pedestrian (though that may reflect the fact that the film was shot in 2D, with the decision to convert to 3D coming after production).
One way in which Burton does appreciate Carroll’s tone is in the creepiness and hint of sadism in the story, as if everyone and everything in Wonderland is there specifically to mess with Alice.
At least the cast seems to buy into Burton’s vision here. Carter seems to be having a lot of fun as the Red Queen and comes the closest to constructing an actual character for herself. She can be oddly sweet and innocent when she isn’t busy having people’s heads chopped off, and Carter really chews the scenery for all it’s worth.
Depp is engaging, as always, and infuses the Mad Hatter with real enthusiasm. He seems to have been given absolute carte blanche by Burton to play the part however he wanted, but despite all his flourishes, such as his random lapses into a Scottish accent, he never finds any real character to play outside of a collection of mannerisms.
Wasikowska was wonderful in the first season of the HBO show In Treatment and in an independent film called That Evening Sun, and she remains compelling here, even though she doesn’t have much to do. Alice remains oddly unperturbed by everything she sees here. This may be a function of the story’s dream logic—after all, who really questions anything that happens during a dream?—but it doesn’t make it interesting to watch.
It’s rather disconcerting to think that a filmmaker such as Burton, whose work once brimmed with such wit and singular vision, could so thoroughly squash everything that made Alice in Wonderland such an enduring fantasy, but it’s true. If you’re looking for a cut-rate Narnia sequel, this film may appeal to you, but anyone looking to recapture the wit and whimsy of Carroll’s books needs to go elsewhere.
Carey Norris writes about film for Birmingham Weekly. Send your comments to email@example.com.