Mark Reviews Movies


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, the voices of Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse, Timothy Spall

MPAA Rating: PG (for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar)

Running Time: 1:48

Release Date: 3/5/10

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Review by Mark Dujsik | March 5, 2010

Tim Burton creates a colorful and convincing (if unfortunately 3-D) Wonderland in Alice in Wonderland. Lest that statement give you the impression that I'm on board with Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton's take on the mythology of Lewis Carroll's books about Alice's adventures in Wonderland, I will simply say that, no, I am not.

For all the persuasive realizations of Carroll's characters in digital form (the Blue Caterpillar (whose hookah habit gives the movie one of the most ridiculous rationales for its MPAA rating), the Cheshire Cat, and the White Rabbit, to name only a few), human form (Alice, the Mad Hatter, and the White Queen, to name the only), or a combination of both (the Red Queen, the Knave of Hearts, and Tweedledee and Tweedledum) and Burton's ability to cull the darkness out of Carroll's trippy, nonsensical narrative, Woolverton takes Carroll's satirical and absurd intent, re-imagines it in terms of a broad fantasy adventure, and, as a result, drains most of the lifeblood from it.

The biggest problem with Woolverton's adaptation is a determined lack of resolve, leading to a decided distance from the material. We're more caught up in Alice's bookend problems in the real world than we are in her escapades through Wonderland.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is on the verge of adulthood, almost 20 years old, and has been invited, unbeknownst to her, to her own engagement party. While there, she spots a rabbit in a waistcoat, the same White Rabbit (voice of Michael Sheen) from her recurring childhood dream, and follows down the rabbit hole into Wonderland, which its denizens refer to as "Underland."

After a familiar puzzle involving a miniature door, a shrinking liquid, a key forgotten on a table, and an enlarging cake, Alice soon learns that she has been foretold in some kind of prophecy to defeat the evil and feared Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and restore the reign of the seemingly ineffectual but beloved White Queen (Anne Hathaway).

The opening and closing sequences, set in Victorian England, suggest a parallel to Alice's journey through Wonderland, whether it be a psychological connection to her feelings of powerlessness in a society that deems her only suitable to become the wife of as well-to-do a man that may want her or specific links between people in her life and the folks she meets in Wonderland. This concept of twin worlds comes off as an afterthought, though, stated directly a few times by characters who tell Alice that it is her own choice how she handles the responsibility expected of her and in the end with a quick mention of how two gossipy girls remind her of the Tweedles (Matt Lucas) (a forced association, as they appear more reminiscent of some of the Red Queen's sycophantic subjects).

The movie's problem, then, is in establishing an emotional link to Wonderland itself and Alice's reason for being there. Carroll, of course, had no such problem, and other adaptations of the material, especially Disney's 1951 animated feature, have gone along with the author's intent of nonsense, absurdity, and satirical stabs at people of his time, which were more than likely lost on audiences almost 50 years ago and only interest now anecdotally.

Instead of going along with Carroll's humorous purpose, Woolverton pulls out the old "fantasy world at war" card, employing the Rabbit, the Tweedles, the Cheshire Cat (voice of Stephen Fry), the Blue Caterpillar (voice of Alan Rickman), the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), and the like as a ragged band of revolutionaries against the tyranny of the Red Queen, her confederate the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), and the monstrous Jabberwock (The King has a new home in the moat with the heads of others who fell victim to the Queen's cry of "Off with their heads!").

For his part, Burton succeeds in attaining a dark, mysterious Wonderland, the kind about which young Alice has had nightmares since childhood. The digital creatures are cartoony but work in the context and are voiced impeccably, and digitally enhanced Depp (the eyes) and Bonham Carter (the head) bring the appropriate madness. Bonham Carter is especially effective as the quick-to-temper Queen.

Again, though, Burton has difficulty maintaining narrative attention when presented with such a bizarre playground and in a dour, monotonous tone. It certainly doesn't help matters that Woolverton's script never determines its priorities and bites off more than it can chew, leading to a typical battle between the Queens' forces on a giant checkered battlefield.

It's become a common argument against Burton, this lack of dramatic drive, but it's true in this instance. With Alice in Wonderland, though, the blame cannot be entirely leveled on him.

Copyright 2010 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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