Alice in Wonderland

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Posted March 4, 2010 in Film

“Curiouser and curiouser,” says Alice (Mia Wasikowska) in Tim Burton’s latest, and for the first time I don’t believe her. Wonderland is still wild, even though in the 13 years since her last visit swaths of it have been napalmed by the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) avenging herself on her prettier sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). But Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton have added a twist that they can’t seem to settle. This teen beauty Alice doesn’t remember her first adventure, but has dreamt of the land down under since she was a girl—huge black circles under her eyes testify. So when she bolts during a high-pressure marriage proposal from a rich snot and follows a rabbit wearing a waistcoat (just like the one in her dream!) down a hole and in front of a blue caterpillar and dodo bird (just like the ones in her dream!) she thinks that somehow she’s slipped asleep. But here’s the issue: to her, Wonderland is neither a mind-blowing new world nor the old homestead she visits every night. She’s not amazed to meet the Mad Hatter nor does she try to pick up yesterday’s somnolent conversation. Either would do. What won’t do is this muddle. 

 

This isn’t about picking apart Burton’s space-time continuum. This is about wonder itself. Fantasy films need a main character who acts as our guide; through them, we feel wowed, cowed, lost and brave. Plop in a dull lead and we’re walled off from feeling anything. This isn’t Wasikowska’s fault—she’s lovely and game—but a shocking lack of inspiration from Burton who simply refashions Lewis Carroll into The Wizard of Oz. Smart, head-scrambling nonsense? Nah, just give us two battling witch-queens who make a teen girl settle their war. Burton dropped his creative genius somewhere in Sleepy Hollow and like a restless madman in the Hollywood asylum has spent the last 10 years obsessively drawing crooked trees.

 

Burton’s best films—Beetlejuice and Edward Scissorhands—have been the ones where he helped brainstorm the story. And both were set in the present-day mundane, farms and suburbs that showcased their big emotions and imagination. This last decade, he’s wasted his efforts on picking stories he seems to see as shortcuts: Planet of the Apes, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice that come complete with their loony worlds. All Burton has to do is add crooked trees. And that’s all he does.

 

Of course, his foliage is a package deal that includes starring roles for Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, who always give Burton their all. But with Depp, Burton has to know what to ask: brains or Wonka? (He goes full Wonka.) Here, Depp feels completely set adrift, veering from revolutionary hero to dance machine. Bonham Carter, however, seems to be the only actor on set who thinks for herself, and her Queen of Hearts is wicked fun. She’s a hydrocephalic mean girl fighting insecurity—when she’s feeling weak, someone’s gonna lose their head. Crispin Glover as her Knave is a great stroke of casting. Hathaway’s White Queen doesn’t get a punchline, but there are hints she’s every bit as creepy as her sister.

 

Nearly every second of Alice feels boggy and preordained. We’re never in doubt that Alice will do whatever she has to do—which is, for this dull Alice, whatever everyone else in Wonderland prophecies she must. We’re looking for something, anything that totally goes off the rails, and the only moment that does is when the Hatter hits on Alice. We’re jolted awake in alarm (flashbacks of him tea-partying it up with the child don’t help). On Friday, Burton will make many kids’ first introduction to Alice and her Wonderland—a tragedy. In the spirit of Carroll, I’m all for adventure, but this weekend, I’d rather they stay locked up at home.


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