Tim Burton is one of those auteur-style directors that brings such a distinctive visual style to his projects that it’s difficult to ignore his presence — even if you would like to — when discussing his work.
Burton stopped pushing his own boundaries with 1994’s “Ed Wood.” Since then, he’s become increasingly predictable — the directorial equivalent of Al Pacino or Jack Nicholson in delivering the caricatured version of his past work people expect, taking his paycheck and leaving.
“Alice in Wonderland” is no exception, which isn’t necessarily bad. His visual aesthetic has become a part of our pop-culture vocabulary, and he is remarkably consistent at producing it. In that sense, “Alice” is great. Sadly, a limp story somewhat flattens the pretty pictures, even when projected in 3-D.
It should be noted that this isn’t a straight adaptation of the “Alice” story we’ve seen umpteen times. Mia Wasikowska (“Amelia“) takes on the Alice mantle, but as a 19-year-old. She is a pawn on her own chessboard, a young woman living in a repressive, Victorian world where she is seen as little more than a sexual commodity.
Alice is expected to accept a marriage proposal from Hamish (Leo Bill, “Me and Orson Welles“), a weak-chinned, nose-picking, irritable-bowel-syndrome-having caricature of an aristocratic tosser. He’s a mama’s boy whose mama (Geraldine James, “Sherlock Holmes“) is deathly afraid of having “ugly grandchildren,” and only finds Alice acceptable because of her photogenic qualities.
Feeling pressured, Alice runs off to think. She sees the white rabbit, looks down the requisite hole at the base of a tree, and falls into Wonderland.
Once there, Alice goes through the whole “eat me”/”drink me” sequence before meeting up with Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas, “Astro Boy“), the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor, TV’s “EastEnders”) and the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen, “New Moon“). It turns out they have lured Alice into Wonderland to do a job for them, but aren’t quite sure if she’s the Alice or not. They take her to the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman, “Bottle Shock“), who cryptically declares she’s not.
Alice eventually runs into the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, “Public Enemies“) and the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse, “Corpse Bride“). The Hatter is the ringleader of a political movement to depose the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter, “Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince“) and re-install her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, “Valentine’s Day“).
There’s a whole backstory with super-interesting information about the Hatter’s history, the political ins and outs of Wonderland, and the long-term hopes and dreams of its citizens. In other words, Burton gets caught up in the verisimilitude of his story’s universe, forgetting that his audience doesn’t give a crap about seeing the Mad Hatter make hats or how the Red Queen mounted a brutal political coup. We’re there to be entertained with freaky, weird stuff.
To be fair, this tendency toward the prosaic has been the basic problem of all “Alice” adaptations. The book’s personality depends on Lewis Carroll’s deft use of puns and nonsensical wordplay, something difficult to pull off onscreen. But when Burton adds in all the hoo-ha about the characters’ motivations and psychology, the thing loses the rest of its hallucinatory charm and becomes another thin, protagonist-finding-herself story. He’s sucked all the wonder out of it. Sometimes, you should just leave well enough alone and let your characters be irrational without explanation, the way interesting people often are.
All that being said, it’s not that “Alice in Wonderland” is a bad movie. Again, it looks terrific and the 3-D works better than one would think. But for the love of God, when will filmmakers accept that effects do not make a movie on their own? They’re cool, but they don’t let you off the hook when it comes to storytelling. You still have to do that the old-fashioned way: with thinking. —Mike Robertson