When Tim Burton’s new version of Alice in Wonderland was first announced, I heard a good bit of consternation — not quite outrage, but a pfsssh and a dismissal — spreading through the internets. And I was skeptical of how much of that consternation was genuine. I mean, let’s all be honest, internet: can anyone truthfully claim that Alice in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass is an unassailable childhood treasure? It’s most definitely and deservedly a classic, but claiming it as a favorite is like claiming a favorite fever dream. Not only have the stories been interpreted and re-interpreted over and over again, but the language and the key scenes and, most of all, John Tenniel’s illustrations have become so lodged into public awareness that there’s nothing you or Tim Burton or American McGee or Jefferson Airplane could possibly do to screw them up.
That’s basically all Alice in Wonderland is: some memorable scenes and characters; a few great nonsensical turns of phrase; and some fantastic, unforgettable imagery. Add in Johnny Depp and a soundtrack by Danny Elfman and you’ve got all the necessary components of a Tim Burton movie. He’s practically spent his entire career looking for an excuse to string together a bunch of weird images without regard to a coherent story; Alice in Wonderland is such a perfect match that the only surprising thing is that he didn’t already do it years ago.
They still made a token attempt to provide some kind of continuity to the movie, so a story occasionally asserts itself. It’s not a particularly interesting story — it’s just a straight line from a rabbit hole to the Jabberwocky — but it’s more substantial than just the “a bunch of weird stuff happens and it looks cool” story of the Disney animated version.
Unfortunately, even a marginally substantial story is not Alice in Wonderland, which was, intentionally and happily, a bunch of clever nonsense. This movie is a version of Alice that’s been Peter Panified and Narniated. Now Alice is 19 and runs after the white rabbit to escape the demands of Proper Society, and she finds herself in the dreamworld of her childhood, where she has to find the vorpal sword and become the Champion of the White Queen to defeat the Jabberwock. (So I suppose the story’s been Wizard of Ozzed as well). The original seems like a dream a little girl in England in the 1800s might have; the new version seems like a dream a Hollywood executive who’d just fallen asleep watching a bunch of big-budget children’s movies back to back might have.
But again, you don’t go into Alice in Wonderland expecting a solid story, and you definitely don’t go into a Tim Burton movie expecting a solid story. It’s all about the imagery, and the movie does a fine job. I can’t imagine wanting to see it in 2D, since the whole thing is pure spectacle and you want to pile on as much gimmickry as you can. And the 3D is done well, as are all the animation and effects. There are more talking animals than a compilation reel of Superbowl commercials, and that’s just the “base level” of effects work going on. They’ve got a main character who changes size randomly throughout the movie, and almost every other character is digitally manipulated in one way or another. And then, they throw them all together in the same shot just because they can. So you end up with Giant Alice sitting down next to a table held up by monkeys while an animated pig lies down at the feet of the tiny body/digitally-enlarged head of Helena Bonham Carter while Crispin Glover walks in on digitally-lengthened legs (watch out, David Letterman) and kisses her hand. It’s really just an excuse for the effects guys to show off.
Which is the other big problem with the movie. The backdrops and costumes are impeccably done, and the look of the main characters is imaginative and memorable, and it’s the job of the effects to take all these disparate fantastic things and combine them with live actors to make them look real. Which means: it probably cost them as much money as I make in a year to make the shot where the Red Knight kisses the hand of the Red Queen, but that moment was pretty inconsequential to the rest of the movie. The same goes for the shots of Alice riding the back of the Bandersnatch (oh yeah, it got Never Ending Storied, too), or fighting the Jabberwock, both of which ended up being fairly straightforward fantasy movie monsters. Alice in Prince Caspian armor is a much more interesting and memorable image than the fantastic things she’s interacting with.
And there aren’t enough new fantastic things to interact with. Everything becomes either a main character or a major plot point, and is referenced repeatedly — there’s an awful lot of dialogue dedicated to how big the Red Queen’s head is, so I’m assuming that was the most expensive and difficult effect in the movie. Apart from a couple of rocking-horseflies early in the movie, there’s not much that exists just for its own sake. There’s not quite enough wonder in Wonderland.
While the movie and the marketing materials are desperate to convince you otherwise, the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen aren’t the standout characters of the movie. That would be the Cheshire Cat, and Alice herself. The Cheshire Cat has a great design, is full of little flourishes in the animation (my favorite is how he kneads the Mad Hatter’s hat, as a cat would), and almost imperceptibly solid voice work from Stephen Fry. I picked up on Alan Rickman’s and Christopher Lee’s voices immediately, but didn’t recognize Fry until the credits at the end. And Mia Wasikowska takes a pretty thankless part — Alice is kind of boring, to be honest — and keeps the audience’s attention and sympathy. Everybody else is fine, but they’re all trying a little to hard. You can always see the wheels turning: I am a highly-paid movie star who embraces quirky character roles and I will be the most distinctive thing in this scene, dammit!
In the end, I’d give it a “good but not great.” I enjoyed almost all of it as I was watching it, and I got my requisite amount of spectacle out of it. (Plus, there were 3D trailers for Toy Story 3 and Tron Legacy). I liked it more than the last few Tim Burton movies I’ve seen, and the last few Disney family blockbusters as well. There are several interesting images in there, and the overall design of the movie is beautiful, and there are enough small touches of dark humor to keep things moving, and there’s a tone of female empowerment that’s probably more healthy for little girls to be seeing than the typical Disney princesses. But more often than not, it feels more like a demo reel for a special effects house than like a timeless classic.
I have to wonder if it would’ve been more amazing if it’d just sprung up out of nowhere, and we hadn’t been bombarded with marketing images of the main characters for the past year. But then, I have to wonder if not having Disney’s marketing budget behind it, it would’ve been made at all.