Tim Burton seems like the perfect director to bring the nonsensical classic Alice In Wonderland to 3-D life, but critics say the most surprising thing about the film, opening today, is that it feels like yet another CGI fantasy movie.
Alice In Wonderland has been reinterpreted in film numerous times since it the book it is based on was published in 1865, and here Burton creates a sort-of sequel to the original. The film starts with brief visions of Alice (Mia Wasikowska) as a child dreaming about the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), then flashes forward to Alice as a 19-year-old. At a party for her engagement to a dull Victorian aristocrat, Alice sees the rabbit again and follows him down a tunnel into Wonderland, which she learns is actually called "Underland." Since Alice last visited, the place has deteriorated under the rule of the evil and bratty Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her henchman the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover). Alice is told by the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) (the "smoking caterpillar" who earned the film a PG rating), that it's up to her to kill the Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee), and return the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the Red Queen's sister, to the throne. Along the way she encounters various outlandish characters from the original story, including the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp).
The reviews for Alice In Wonderland are mixed. Critics don't mind Burton making Alice an adult, and though some say it is a "refreshingly feminist version of the classic hero," others complain that the film feels too much like every other fantasy epic. Though the young hero charged with defending the world against the forces of evil is a woman for a change, many reviewers mention that the CGI battle at the end resembles Lord of the Rings too closely, i.e an action movie. In general the graphics are impressive, but the 3-D version of the film isn't as immersive as Avatar because it was shot in 2-D, then elements of each scene were converted.
Wasikowska is almost universally praised for her performance as Alice, and Bonham Carter's Red Queen is singled out as one of the movie's high points. Critics are divided about Depp's Mad Hatter — while he's proven numerous times that he has a knack for playing flamboyant, unhinged characters, reviewers say that this time, "it's hard to see anything genuinely moving behind his tics and mannerisms."
Below, the reviews:
[Burton's] most nervy decision — making Alice a 19-year-old young woman on the verge of a tiresome marriage — also proves to be his best. Alice in Wonderland is not just a refreshingly feminist version of the classic hero quest but a forum for a terrific breakout performance from newcomer Mia Wasikowska... Burton's signature gnarled, gothic aesthetic runs through Alice in Wonderland, which features Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, he of the oddly dilated pupils and accents that run from a lusty Scottish brogue to an upper-crusty lisp. It's worth the price of admission if only to hear Depp give sonorous voice to Carroll's slithy toves and borogoves, but it's the women who steal the show, from the somber, self-possessed Wasikowska (familiar to fans of HBO's In Treatment) to Bonham Carter's scenery-chewing tantrums, to Hathaway's very funny turn as a too-too good girl. Alice in Wonderland is being shown in 3-D, but the most stunning effects lie in the film's ingenious makeup and costumes, as well as tricks that elongate or fatten the characters' bodies (or, in the case of Bonham Carter, inflate her head to dirigible-like proportions).
Alice also has the misfortune of being the first major 3-D release to arrive after the Avatar revolution. Considering that Burton chose to shoot in 2-D and have the footage converted, this film plays like one of the last gasps of the old-school way of doing things. What's even more unfortunate is Burton's attempt to turn his film into a Wonderland version of The Lord of the Rings, complete with massed forces of good and evil headed toward a sadly generic CGI battle to end all battles. With those battle scenes to please the boys, the film has taken special care with the girls, providing images of Alice as a warrior princess in full Joan of Arc armor as an icon of female empowerment. That kind of thing is always in short supply, but it would be nicer if that image - and the movie as a whole - felt more authentic and original. That would really be a wonder.
It says a lot about this movie, though, that Carter's role is now essentially a reprise of the White Witch in the Narnia films, a beastly diva who needs to be vanquished for peace to reign once more over Underland (not Wonderland; apparently the young Alice was hard of hearing). Nor do you need to be a film freak to ID the movie's other elements and influences; you just need to have seen enough blockbusters and played a few video games. There are bits of The Lord of the Rings, Shrek, The Wizard of Oz, The Princess Bride, even The Golden Compass, all given a wash of chic Gothic gloom. I'm not accusing Burton of intentional theft, just of working within a profitable mainstream fantasy-action framework that by now feels over familiar even to the 12-year-old who sat next to me at the screening. In its big-budget extraordinariness, Alice is awfully . . . ordinary.
There's no denying Depp's gifts and abilities, but this performance feels both indulgent and something we've all seen before. What is even more unfortunate is the film's attempt to turn itself into an Underland version of The Lord of the Rings, complete with massed forces of good and evil inevitably headed toward a sadly generic CGI battle to end all battles... With those battle scenes in place to please the boys, Burton and company have taken special care to provide pictures of Alice as a warrior princess in full Joan of Arc armor as a female empowerment icon for the girls in the audience. While that kind of thing is always in short supply, it would be nicer if that image — and the movie as a whole — felt less like corporate moves and more like situations that came from the heart.
Alice in Wonderland is (in many theaters) in 3-D, but Burton doesn't seem the least bit interested in Avatar-like immersion. The faker the better. The topiary and hedges create orderly layers of space, and the foreground figures often resemble cardboard cutouts-which strikes me as exactly how it should be, given the characters' playing-cards origins. The meeting of Red and White Queens on a great chessboard battlefield is gorgeous-and the clash that follows is choreographed and designed with such wit and elegance that it puts to shame the longer, more elaborate battles in other recent fantasy films (among them-dare I say?-The Lord of the Rings trilogy). Bonham Carter's bratty insouciance will impress you more if you haven't seen its obvious antecedent, Miranda Richardson's peerless Elizabeth I in Blackadder II ("Who's Queen?"), but it's still screamingly funny. And Burton made the right call in casting Mia Wasikowska instead of a swan-necked Keira Knightley type. The part of Alice is compromised by what showbiz people would call her new "character arc," but Wasikowska, as she proved on the HBO show In Treatment, can seem at one moment overdefended and the next poetically transparent. Burton, bless him, knows you can't CG a soul.
This has never been a children's story. There's even a little sadism embedded in Carroll's fantasy. It reminds me of uncles who tickle their nieces until they scream. Alice plays better as an adult hallucination, which is how Burton rather brilliantly interprets it until a pointless third act flies off the rails... Here I must apologize to faithful readers for repeating myself. Time after time I complain when a film develops an intriguing story and then dissolves it in routine and boring action. We've seen every conceivable battle sequence, every duel, all carnage, countless showdowns and all-too-long fights to the finish. Why does Alice in Wonderland have to end with an action sequence? Characters not rich enough? Story run out? Little minds, jazzed by sugar from the candy counter, might get too worked up without it? Or is it that executives, not trusting their artists and timid in the face of real stories, demand an action climax as insurance? Insurance of what? That the story will have a beginning and a middle but nothing so tedious as an ending?
Depp is a marvel as the Hatter, orange hair sprouting as a result of poisoning from the mercury used in making hats. He handles Carroll's language so well that you wish more of it had slipped into the script. Love for Alice shines out of his eyes. But those hoping for a peek into the alleged perversity of Carroll's interest in young girls won't find it here. Still, even Disney and a PG rating can't bury Burton's subversive wit. Like Carroll, he's a master at dressing up psychic wounds in fantasy. If you're looking for the trippy bounce of Jefferson Airplane's "White Rabbit" with its wisdom in the shrooms, it can be found. Like Alice, you just have to dig for it.
The best adaptations have found ways to put a personal stamp on the familiar stories. Others have simply reproduced an Alice facsimile in the image of their own era. Surprisingly, Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland belongs to the latter camp. That doesn't necessarily make it a bad movie, just another frustratingly impersonal one from a director who once had trouble compacting his personality down to movie size. Filled with 3D-friendly CGI landscapes and roaring beasties, Burton's Alice borrows characters and settings from Carroll, but otherwise trashes Wonderland (or "Underland," as Disney veteran Linda Woolverton would have it in her screenplay). Gone: the liquid reality of dreams and a sense that anything can happen. In its place: another story of quests, destinies, and chosen ones. The Jabberwocky, March Hare, and Cheshire Cat all appear, but absent Carroll's hallucinatory playfulness.
As Alice, Mia Wasikowska is pitch-perfect, looking the part and capturing her sense of innocence... But Burton also wisely calls upon his dual muses, Johnny Depp as the addled Mad Hatter, and Helena Bonham Carter as the imperious Red Queen. Depp is terrific as the carrot-topped, wonky-eyed Mad Hatter, a character given more depth than in previous clownish incarnations. Bonham Carter, though, steals the show with her hilarious verbosity. There's a lot more to her than fiery exhortations of "Off with your head!" However, heads loom large for her. She sports a particularly outsized and bulbous cranium, the object of much jesting. The Mad Hatter admires her protruding skull unabashedly: "I'd love to hat it," he burbles.
Depp, in particular, gets lost in the shuffle. The Mad Hatter, as Burton has reimagined him here, with a matted puff of red hair and perpetually dilated crazy-ass eyes, is something of a lost soul, the very type of character that Depp is generally so wonderful at playing. But it's hard to see anything genuinely moving behind his tics and mannerisms. Even though Burton and Depp have done some wonderful work together — in movies like Edward Scissorhands and Sleepy Hollow — it's gotten to the point where I prefer to see Depp in performances where he's not hidden under "Look at me!" makeup. There's a point at which perpetual collaboration between a filmmaker and an actor becomes a liability, and Depp and Burton may have reached it, at least for now. Alice in Wonderland does offer its share of slender pleasures: Wasikowska plays Alice as bright and unassuming, and watching her is never a chore, even when the story devolves into a "Girls can do cool stuff, too!" empowerment tale.
Mr. Depp's strenuously flamboyant turn embodies the best and worst of Mr. Burton's filmmaking tendencies even as the actor brings his own brand of cinematic crazy to the tea party. With his Kabuki-white face, the character seems to have been calculated to invoke Heath Ledger's Joker, though at his amusing best the Hatter brings to mind a strung-out Carrot Top. But Mr. Depp doesn't have much to do, which he proves as he wildly flirts with the camera. The only time the character hooks you is in the shivery moment when his gaze turns predatory as he looks at Alice, who, every inch a Tim Burton Goth Girl, from her corpselike pallor to her enervated presence, presents a more convincing vision of death than of sex. That queasy, potentially rich and frightening moment expectedly fades as fast as the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), which doesn't leave you with much else to hold onto, Alice included. Mr. Burton's heroine is a wan figure to hang an entire world on, and Ms. Wasikowska, who's a livelier, truer presence in the forthcoming The Kids Are All Right, barely registers among Mr. Burton's clanging and the computer-generated galumphing.
Ms. Bonham Carter's star turn in a secondary role is exquisite for its precision and economy. In writing about her performance as the pie maker Mrs. Lovett in Mr. Burton's Sweeney Todd, I admired her song-and-dance-woman's sense of timing, and that's vividly in evidence once again. When the Red Queen says "I need a pig here," it's a regal request for a footrest issued casually; she is clearly accustomed to comforting her feet with warm pork bellies. Mr. Depp can be a phenomenal performer too, but not this time. Like the production as a whole, his Mad Hatter is an agreeably whimsical yet unsurprising assemblage, while Ms. Bonham Carter's absolute monarch is a force of unnature and a triumphant illogician.
The challenge of adapting Alice in Wonderland is this: How do you create relationships, a story, a purpose out of a tale whose prime purpose is not to have one? Tim Burton, with his crazy love for rabbit-hole alternative worlds (Beetlejuice), baroque oddballs (Batman, Edward Scissorhands), and kiddie fables told with a cynical wink (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), would seem to be the perfect director to adapt Carroll's legendary tale and make a memorable, zany-dark movie out of it. But Burton's Disneyfied 3-D Alice in Wonderland, written by the girl-power specialist Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast), is a strange brew indeed: murky, diffuse, and meandering, set not in a Wonderland that pops with demented life but in a world called Underland that's like a joyless, bombed-out version of Wonderland. It looks like a CGI head trip gone postapocalyptic. In the film's rather humdrum 3-D, the place doesn't dazzle - it droops.