Home > Film, Reviews > Film Review: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Film Review: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Alice in Wonderland (2010; Directed by Tim Burton)

Note: An edited version of this review was published in PopMatters’ Best Films of 2010 feature on January 12, 2011.

Disney: Making children's lit illicitly sexy since 1937

For a film so thematically invested in the value of imagining the impossible and embracing the unpredictable, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland imagines and embraces very few surprises and even fewer wonders. For all its glorious visual flourishes and ingeniously idiosyncratic designs (and there are many), Burton’s vaunted “re-imagining” of Lewis Carroll’s classic tales of fantastic dream-logic is full of clumsy character beats, half-hearted emotional connections, and recycled narrative arcs.

Casting a nubile young-adult Alice (the engaging-enough Mia Wasikowska) in a hero quest narrative replete with stale Campbellian archetypes (down to the reluctant acceptance of prophecized destiny) would be immediately dismissed as a cynical Hollywood demographic ploy if Tim Burton’s name wasn’t attached to the resulting film (maybe such dismissals happened anyway). These sort of archetypes likely play better to a multiplex crowd reared on Star Wars and Lord of the Rings than Carroll’s episodic kid-lit structure, but the resulting plot is predictable and markedly unengaging as it creaks towards its pitched-battle climax.

The prophecy element seems especially specious considering that this Alice is supposedly fleeing the corsets and forced engagements of orderly Victorian England for a technicolour phantasmic landscape full of delightful wonders. She doesn’t want to be told by her mother, her sister, or her presumptive twittish fiance with indigestion how to look, how to act, or what to be in the real world, so she finds herself in a fantasy realm… where she’s told what to be by a prophetic scroll and a rogue’s gallery of collaborators. Then, at the end, when she apparently finds her own place in that real world (thanks in no small part to her experiences in the fantastic one), it’s only as an agent of the imperial order (ie. trading in China). On a whole other level, this thematic message also falls flat: if independence, originality, and self-determination are such laudable assets, why does this film have so little time for them in its storytelling?

Of course, Burton has never been known as a terribly singular storyteller. He’s a talented visualist with a flair for frayed Gothic grandeur who surrounds himself with a similarly slightly-twisted design team. His films are never dull to look at, but often dull to try and follow, to invest in. Of course, the design of his Wonderland and its many denizens are fantastic. And many of those denizens are played by wonderful performers camping it up with aplomb.

This is not a drug reference. Seriously.

Helena Bonham-Carter’s Red Queen, with her CGI-inflated head and petulant selfishness, is a joy in each and every one of her scenes. The big-name British voice talent (Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Michael Sheen, Christopher Lee) all leave strong impressions in even the smallest of roles, although the ragtag band of animated sidekicks get to be a bit too much by the final act, when they mostly have little to do. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is less well-formed, another one of his sensitive left-field rogues, a sort of degenerated version of his ridiculously-mannered eccentric Willy Wonka from his previous collaboration with Burton, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Like his Wonka, Depp’s Hatter is less a complete individual than a meticulously-worked out series of ticks and mannerisms, down to his intermittent Scottish accent and awkward closing celebratory dance. His interaction with Alice is supposed to be the soul of the film, but we’re never really given a solid reason to believe in it. That’s the script’s and the director’s failing, but it’s Depp’s as well.

Depp’s predicament is also the film’s: it’s a collection of beautifully-constructed individual eye-candy elements without an animating centre. A big part of this issue has to do with Burton’s characteristics as a filmmaker, but it also demonstrates a basic misreading of the source material. The Alice books have substantial possibilities for a creative tour-de-force of a movie, and the production design on display here comes closest to fulfilling them. But on the deeper levels of story and character, Burton and his team have little new to tell us, and borrow liberally from films that did. And that, ultimately, is not so wonderful.

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Categories: Film, Reviews
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  1. June 16, 2013 at 12:33 pm

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