A Night Out With Alice: "Something's Missing," Indeed

When I heard that Tim Burton was planning to direct a take on Alice in Wonderland, my first thought was: "This will either be great, or it will be terrible." Turns out it's a little bit of both:

Note: there are spoilers ahead! Turn back now if you're so inclined.

I have to admit that I wasn't terribly hopeful going in to the film, thanks to mediocre reviews and a touch of Depp/Burton collaboration burnout (a phenomenon that might spread to the masses now that Depp's confusing, ridiculous, and ultimately disappointing Mad Hatter has been unleashed), but my hopes were raised a bit when I took a look at the audience around me: a sea of 15-year-old girls, wearing wacky hats and whispering excitedly amongst themselves. I may have outgrown my Burton goth girl obsession, but there is a new generation that most decidedly has not, and their excitement was a bit contagious.

The excitement didn't last long, however: after being introduced to 19-year-old Alice, who is not thrilled with the idea of marrying a stuffy, loser aristocrat named Hamish, we quickly head to Wonderland through Alice's escape from her engagement party, which leads her, naturally, down the rabbit hole. The drop itself was disappointing: though Alice encounters several strange things on her way down the hole, including a somewhat threatening piano, the entire sequence feels a bit empty and devoid of any real magic. Once she gets to the "Eat Me/Drink Me" room of doors, it becomes very clear that Burton's take on Carroll's classic aims to be dark and somewhat drab; more of a nightmare than a dream.

Burton's Wonderland is bleak (my notes recall it as "so fucking bleak") and gray and terribly depressing, and there is a distance from the art that perhaps comes with the technological advances. I'm not entirely convinced that CGI is a good medium for Burton, as it renders much of his work somewhat cold and generic looking (though in fairness, I saw the 2-D version, not the 3-D version of the film, which is most likely an entirely different experience). In running through Burton's Wonderland woods, one gets the sense they've been there before, and in more spectacular fashion, in his films Sleepy Hollow and Big Fish.

Wonder, ironically, is the thing that seems to be missing from Wonderland: one doesn't get the same sense of amazement that came with watching Edward Scissorhands trim hedges or seeing the waiting room of the dead in Beetlejuice. Alice's world is closer, aesthetically, to the world of Sweeney Todd in terms of the overall darkness, but even when colors arrive in the form of various characters, there is still a sleek, almost-too-perfect distance about them, which was something that popped up often enough in Burton's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory adaptation, though that film has decidedly more life to it than this one seems to. Here, things are, in many ways, exactly as you'd expect them to be, only kept behind glass, where you can't really touch them.

However, the film does also have many redeeming qualities: Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen is wicked and delightful, the palace inhabited by Anne Hathaway's White Queen is fairly spectacular, and the various beasts in the film are given strong personalities and stories for the audience to cling to. But the real highlight of the film is Mia Wasikowska's Alice, who, after being told by her would-be fiance to keep silent and by her sister that her "pretty face won't last forever," runs to Wonderland and asserts her independence early on, noting that Wonderland is a dream she controls.

That Alice is in charge of her own destiny remains a theme throughout the film, which was lovely to watch, especially in a room of teenage girls who nodded knowingly at some of her lines ("I make the path") and audibly gasped when she appeared in the Red Queen's court wearing a kickass red and black striped dress. (I may have gasped too, crew.) At the end of the film, Alice asserts her independence once more, ditching Hamish and going into business with his father, eventually setting out on another adventure on a trade route to China. Wasikowska is wonderful, and her Alice is, as well. She makes the path, she is in control, and she is the hero of her own adventures.

It is a shame then, that such a strong and interesting female character is lost amongst the mess that is the rest of the film, including Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter, who switches between a voice reminiscent of Dwight from The Office with a lisp and, for some reason, a Scottish brogue that is never quite explained. I'm assuming the swap in voices is meant to show Depp's madness (the brogue appears whenever he speaks of battle) but it doesn't quite work. There is also an incredibly painful Mad Hatter breakdancing scene that I will never really be able to wash from my memory, no matter how many times I watch What's Eating Gilbert Grape.

There is a scene in the film wherein the Mad Hatter accuses Alice of "losing her muchness," arguing that "in there, something's missing," which is really a proper summation of the film itself. All of the parts are there, all of the requisite actors in place, all of the characters lovingly recreated and voiced, and yet there is just something slightly off about the entire endeavor. Maybe it was me, and I'm too old for a PG Wonderland at this point. Or maybe hardcore Burton fans had too much time to envision their own Burton-helmed Wonderland over the years, and nothing ever measures up to the imagination. But ultimately it seems there was just a lack of love in the film, of wonder, of warmth, of spirit. Wonderland may have found a worthy champion in Alice, but it's a land, and a film, that isn't truly worthy of its heroine.

Earlier: Alice In Wonderland:"Refreshingly Feminist," Lacks Heart