Alice in Wonderland

Welcome to the confused underbelly of Tim Burton’s wild imagination, and though I wish that would make for an illustrious compliment, the large-scale director has seen his best days over a decade ago and still can’t regain his footing.  Lately the man has been choosing source material (Sweeney Todd, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) so in tune with his sensibilities that I couldn’t dare to dream why ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ perhaps the perfect mold for Burton to shine in, comes off as a lacking spectacle in every way.

Audiences seemed to be ready for this latest incarnation. It has become the biggest film of Burton’s career and marks Johnny Depp’s second film to cross the billion-dollar mark worldwide.  All that to say I can’t imagine anyone being thrilled by such an obnoxiously odd mind-trip that fancies endless oodles of hack-job computer generated visual effects and accomplished actors playing otherworldly versions of children dressed up for the circus.  While “Avatar” seems to have become the end-all to special effects extravaganzas, I think “Alice” really suffers in the wake of James Cameron’s heralded accomplishments.  Burton’s landscape barely makes for comparison, and disappoints in nearly every frame.  However, it seems easy to assume the younger demographic will still be engulfed in this CGI theme park.  But it is a bit odd that Disney went full-steam ahead on a project that lends itself to such dark corners and is a story not well-suited for its target demographic.  The only obvious choice was to saddle Alice (Mia Wasikowska) as a late-teen dreamer caught up in an arranged marriage, needing an escape to a world that awakens her to her own desires.  Down the rabbit hole she goes.

A cast of twisted talent: Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Alan Rickman, Crispin Glover and more get to lend their gravitas to the most outrageous characters.  To go into their detail would seem insignificant, but essentially Alice enters Underland with the assumption that she is in a deep-sleep dream.  Until she wakes up, she must dethrone the Red Queen (Carter) by slaying the dragon Jabberwocky.  In doing so, she will rescue the inhabitants of Underland by giving the crown to the Red Queen’s sister, none of other than the White Queen (Anne Hathaway).  The incomprehensible events leading up to this dual seem to be nonsensical filler for a story that seems to want get to an action climax.  None of it seems fitting for the film, especially the third act’s battle sequence, but every encounter throughout even leading up to this point has so little structure or any driving plot.  Several of the characters are meant to represent real humans in Alice’s world back home, but so little character development is given that this task of associating the characters becomes extremely difficult.  I watched this entire film feeling as though these characters are extras in a stage play without the focus and are compelled to keep doing something so as not to break the illusion, but their actions have no meaning.

This ‘Wonderland’ is not a terrible film by any means.  If the writers had lent just a hint of coherence to the plot, I may have enjoyed it more.  The movie plays out as a sequel without a prequel, with the realization that Wonderland is a real place underneath the earth, and that this teenage Alice has been there before and can’t remember her previous journey.  This reminded me of Steven Spielberg’s “Hook” without any of the, you know, kid-friendly stuff.  It is understandable that the studio had to find a way to connect this film to young teens that turned “Twilight” into such a phenomenon.  The problem is that Mia Wasikowska never makes Alice seem fearful nor enchanted.  She seems content to tread through this world awaiting her waking moment.  Without her pulling me into this journey, despite her talent, I couldn’t react to anything.  Even still, the end result here feels completely phoned in.  Burton has crafted a film a bit edgy and scary for Disney, but not haunting enough to fully connect with Lewis Carrol’s pages.  The visual effects fail to excite the senses, and even the eccentric efforts of Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp feel like a well-worn shirt.  Nothing about the entire film strikes me as though creative effort was put to the test and wrung out for all it was worth, and that’s a major disappointment for a story that commands limitless imagination.

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