'Alice' in Blunderland
James Rocchi, Special to MSN Movies
Splayed out on the screen in pixelated, glimmering, hollow 3-D, Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" is "inspired" by Lewis Carroll's 1865 "Alice in Wonderland" and 1872 "Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There." The phrase "inspired" is in quotes above because, bluntly, there's not a moment of true inspiration in the entire film, just a series of moments demonstrating that Burton, more and more, has become a director content to use his tools as crutches. "Alice in Wonderland" follows Alice (Mia Wasikowska, rendered blank and bland by the script) as she returns to Wonderland and its characters, now a fully-grown woman. This time when Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole, it's because she's fleeing a dreary arranged marriage to a dreary man.
And once in Wonderland, Alice becomes the ultimate Tim Burton protagonist, which is to say that she wanders through a meticulously-designed fantasyland doing very little, meeting fantastic characters much more interesting than she is. Alice has only cloudy memories of her previous visits to Wonderland, and meets at every turn her old friends like Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas), the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, looking like the headliner in a hypothetical acid trip by the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen). Alice, we and she are told, is the only person who can defeat the Jabberwock and free "Underland" (apparently, Alice misheard it all those years ago, an empty fillip that adds nothing) from the tyranny of the petty, cruel Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).
But Linda Woolverton's screenplay doesn't give us any reasons for this, moving between expensive and lead-footed set-pieces and unfunny, ostensibly whimsical wordplay before culminating with Alice clad in battle armor bearing the Vorpal sword to defeat the Jabberwock. This is exciting if you collect action figures, or wonder what Joan of Arc would look like given a makeover suitable for the racks at Hot Topic. It is not in any way thrilling if you are interested in character, motivation, coherent storytelling or anything other than Burton's high-tech, high-cost puppet show, in which he jams his clumsy hands up into various literary figures and has them say what he likes before tossing them aside. The unanswered questions are many, and grow with each passing second (Why is Alice the savior? Why is the White Queen [Anne Hathaway] better than the Red?) and we are not given answers, merely spectacle.
The film's 3-D inventions are essentially irrelevant. As the CG characters clatter and clamor on-screen, you get the sense that the 3-D was added solely to keep the computer-generated characters and backgrounds from looking even more mummified, lifeless and plastic. Carroll's books are cultural curiosities whose familiarity is as enduring as it is inexplicable. They're plotless whimsies designed to divert children and lightly mock Victorian social modes and models, and transforming their characters and settings into a 21st-century action-spectacle big-finish blockbuster does not do them, or the audience, any favors. (The Jefferson Airplane wrung more cultural pulp and spooky imaginative power out of the "Alice" story in 1967's "White Rabbit" with two-and-a-half minutes and a little reverb than Burton does in 2010 with 108 minutes and millions of dollars.) Depp's Mad Hatter is shown to be insane thanks in no small part to the brutal military actions of the Red Queen. I'd never thought of the Mad Hatter as a victim of post-traumatic stress disorder, but any interesting possibilities in that approach are drowned out by Depp's shifting accents, shameless mugging and lazy overacting.
Much of the blame of this "Alice" can fall on Woolverton. If you're going to explore political ideas with a revamp of a Victorian children's fable, don't do it in half-measures. The film's postscript feels like a lame attempt to give one of the least feminist works of literature ever written (many historians suggest Carroll invented "Alice" to impress an 11-year-old girl in whom he had an unhealthy interest) a closing moment with a grown-up lead character whose finale feels faux-feminist and clumsily tacked-on.
Burton's always been more of an image-maker than a storyteller. His films all tend to recycle the tale of the beautiful, misunderstood outsider; but at least "Edward Scissorhands" and "Ed Wood" had the lightness of inspiration and the physicality of the real world to support them, and in those films Depp was asked to do more than show up and be Johnny Depp. Like the sour, saccharine "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Alice in Wonderland" combines the heavy-handed clamminess of unneeded brand remarketing (Disney would love to sell new "Alice" stuff, and may have put more effort into the tie-in merchandise than the actual film) with the hateful hollowness of overdone and empty computer-generated imagery. The original 1951 Disney animated "Alice in Wonderland" is far from perfect, but at least it makes you feel like you're watching a fairy tale. With Burton's uninspired, underdone and underwritten version, you only feel like you're watching money.
James Rocchi's writings on film have appeared at Cinematical.com, Netflix.com, SFGate.com and in Mother Jones magazine. He lives in Los Angeles, where every ending is a twist ending.