Published Mar 04, 2010In theory, the pairing of visionary director Tim Burton (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Edward Scissorhands) with his long-time collaborators Johnny Depp (as the Mad Hatter) and Helena Bonham Carter (as the Red Queen), coming together for an adaptation of Lewis Carroll's psychedelic Alice's Adventures In Wonderland, couldn't be more perfect.
Burton has the visual inventiveness to bring the world to Technicolor life, especially now that 3D has become the latest toy in the filmmaker's box; Johnny Depp has suckled his late career renaissance on the teat of crazy; and Helena Bonham Carter has become more delightfully unhinged with almost every role since Fight Club. And while each of these artists bring their unique sensibilities to this project, Bonham Carter is the only one having any fun, and the whole never coheres with any sense of purpose. With the fundamental problem being that this team is not, in fact, making Alice's Adventures in Wonderland at all.
In this case, from a script by Linda Woolverton (whose resume is primary animated TV and children's movies), Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is a woman on the verge of marriage, who's dismissed her earlier adventures in Wonderland as a recurring dream, when she tumbles once again down a rabbit hole and finds the world of Lewis Carroll in tatters.
Since the events of her adolescence, the Red Queen has ruled with a giant head and iron fist, banishing the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to a seemingly swank white castle and leaving the attendees of the Hatter's tea party crazy and discombobulated. They've all been waiting for Alice's return so she can kill the Red Queen's Jabberwocky and restore order, none of which Alice herself actually remembers. But it's fated by scroll drawings, so she gets swept up into adventures that are not entirely her doing, and in which she's often left to the side of her tale.
What's odd about the choice to age Alice ― and to cast the substance of Carroll's stories, including his sequel, Through the Looking Glass, aside ― is that it loses much of the essential magic of the Alice tale. Original recipe Alice, on the verge of adulthood, is cresting childhood magic and imagination heading into maturity; that she's reluctant to do so is natural. To an 18-year-old Alice ― on the verge of marrying a simpering Lord for status and social acceptance ― Wonderland is little more than a fond memory, and her adventures a last weekend of fanciful play.
Because they're "familiar" to her, none of the wonders are properly introduced ― the Cheshire Cat, the chess-piece minions, the hooka-smoking caterpillar are all taken as known entities. Gone is Carroll's delicious sense of wordplay, the inherent contradictions that befuddle a young girl, for whom the adult world seems arbitrary and confusing. Instead, Burton has crafted a visual playground that only adults are allowed to play in.
In this new world, the Red Queen rules. Bonham Carter ― with an absurdly large head that's both a primary source of comedy and a wonder of CGI and practical makeup ― steals the movie. As the Mad Hatter, Johnny Depp is content to let Carrot Top hair and rave-era make-up do most of the work for him, offering little more than riffs on better written, or more fully realized, performances as Willy Wonka and Jack Sparrow, including odd and sporadic attempts at a Scottish accent for seemingly no reason. A slew of British actors (Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen and Matt Lucas) offer voice work as familiar characters like Tweedledum and Tweedledee or the Cheshire Cat. They're not introduced properly as characters, nor given much to do.
And therein lies the fundamental problem with Alice In Wonderland: it plays like a pretty good sequel to a film we never saw. Tim Burton using all his wild inventiveness to actually adapt the Alice story is the movie I really wanted to see, not some lame, after-the-fact effort that does nothing to honour Carroll's timeless tale. (Disney/Buena Vista)