When Tim Burton and Disney present you a pretty little 3-D film with a tag on it that says “Watch Me,” you’re likely to indulge. The prospect of one of the finest fantasy directors (who’s a bit mad himself) creating the beloved and colorful world of Lewis Carroll’s classic children’s tales in the era of CGI and 3-D seems flawless. Yet somehow, the magic factor does not find its way where it is needed most: the story.
While 3-D films are still novel, CGI is not. Not even James Cameron’s “Avatar” could win audiences on visual effects alone; it needed a classic story. Linda Woolverton’s take on “Alice in Wonderland” preaches classic “dream the impossible” and “carve your own destiny” themes, but they’re not organic in this plot. To fit in all the classic characters from the both Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” Woolverton throws them in like set decorations. Perhaps Burton too is a bit ignorant and doesn’t let us discover these characters so much as smack us over the head with them like a flamingo croquet mallet. The only instance where we get to know these characters is the Mad Hatter’s tea party, which was likely because of Johnny Depp.
The story is a “return to Wonderland” premise. Alice (Mia Wasikowska) dreamed of Wonderland as a little girl, but now she’s 19 years old and she’s just arrived at a fancy party which she does not know is in honor of her wedding engagement, which she’s not expecting and isn’t sure she wants. When the white rabbit shows up she follows him down the rabbit hole and the familiar adventures begin, only Alice conveniently doesn’t realize she was there before as a little girl so that all the memorable scenes and characters can come back.
The truth is that Wonderland (apparently called Underland) is very different from the one we know as far as what’s going on there. The Red Queen, played with the right amount of quirk and arrogance by Helena Bonham-Carter, runs a cruel regime. Supposedly Alice is the only one who can end it by slaying the giant Jabberwocky, but she’s not all that sure that’s her destiny either. In fact, she insists she’s dreaming.
There aren’t many unexpected turns of events from there. By the trailers alone, it’s fairly obvious Alice won’t be too reluctant to save Wonde–er–Underland. Now that we’re not concerned about what happens next, we turn to the wide array of colorful characters to entertain us.
Anyone familiar with the original stories probably had a scene or a character in mind that they were looking forward too. For me, I was excited for Absalom the hookah-puffing caterpillar, in part because he’s voiced by Alan Rickman. He pops up at the beginning as the know-all figure the others turn to and then a few times in between, but it’s not enough to soak up the character. That’s pretty much the story with everyone except the Mad Hatter. Depp is allowed a rangy performance from sentimental moments with Alice to full-on random Scottish brogue. It’s no surprise that he and Bonham-Carter, the Tim Burton regulars, are both the funniest and most interesting because they’re full of surprises. No two line deliveries are exactly the same — that’s the quirkiness of a Tim Burton film and there wasn’t enough of it.
I didn’t have the chance to catch this film in theaters or in 3-D, so I won’t comment on the visual effects. However, the environment of Wonderland was hardly a “character,” which all the best setting are; they play integral roles in the film. The production team put together these CGI landscapes but they go unexplored. One example of strong environment integration was the floating (assumed decapitated) heads in the Red Queen’s moat that tiny Alice crosses like lily pads. Once again, something you’d expect more of from Burton.
“Alice in Wonderland” is simply childish. It would appeal most to children and the story and character integration are best described as amateur. There was so much more about these characters and their world that seem worthy of exploration, but there was no chance for it in “Wonderland.” For a story that is about championing imagination and the impossible, there was nothing inspiring and magical about it other than a few key performances. At least Wasikowska was a likable Alice with the right balance of skepticism and curiosity. Unfortunately, I was far more interested in what happened to her before she fell into the rabbit hole and I doubt some 3-D glasses would’ve changed my mind.
Alice in Wonderland
Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Linda Woolverton, Lewis Carroll (books)
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter