FILM REVIEW: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Alice in Wonderland (USA, 2010)
Directed by Tim Burton

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover

There's been a lot of nonsense written about Tim Burton in the past few months. Way in advance of Alice in Wonderland's release, detractors from all sides were bemoaning his supposed decline, accusing him of everything from selling out to never being any good in the first place.

In the face of this huge backlash, most of it unwarranted and much of it stupid, I wanted to be the one to stand up for Tim Burton. After all, his last three films - Big Fish, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd - have all been great, and the latter is on a par with his masterpiece Ed Wood. But all good things must come to an end, and in the case of Alice in Wonderland the end is quite a bitter one.What makes Alice in Wonderland so depressing is that there is so much potential within both the story and Burton's approach to it. Both the original novels are about the role of childhood fantasies in preparing one for the traumas of adult life. The heroine is an outsider who doesn't fit into the world being designed for her - she is a classic Burton protagonist in the manner of Winona Ryder in Edward Scissorhands. And considering his knack for creating dark and exuberant visual worlds, Burton would seem the ideal choice for the drug-induced majesty of Lewis Carroll.

But in spite of all the good omens, the finished product is as banal and directionless as Terry Gilliam's The Brothers Grimm. Both films appear on the surface to be the directors' dream project, considering Gilliam's fascination with fairy tales which stretches back to Jabberwocky. But both Grimm and Alice are clear examples of an artistic, distinctive and often mad director having their visions suppressed or suffocated in favour of a bloated and anodyne mainstream blockbuster.For starters, the script for Alice in Wonderland is little short of pathetic. Its relationship to Carroll's works is at best stand-offish and at worst completely patronising - it borrows famous lines (like the Mad Hatter's riddle) and then rephrases them in such a way that sucks all the fun and insanity out. This becomes all the more shocking when we discover it's written by Linda Woolverton, who wrote Beauty and the Beast and co-wrote The Lion King. How could someone who made her name retuning fairy tales for family audiences have got this one so damn wrong?The biggest crime of the script, however, is not its contempt for Carroll's language. The biggest crime is that all the central ideas of both the novels and Burton's work are swiftly trampled underfoot, in favour of something a lot more generic and predictable. All the ideas about Alice being independent are quickly overruled by the central plot involving the compendium: one cannot be independent if your destiny is predetermined. In the face of this revelation, Alice as a character descends into the very thing that Burton sought to avoid: despite the best efforts of Mia Wasikowska, she comes across as little more than a sniffy, spoilt brat.The central plot of this 'reimagining' of Alice is also massively derivative. The idea of a plot built around the poem 'Jabberwocky' was handled, albeit unevenly, in the Gilliam film, while having Alice re-enter the fantasy world of her youth is a blatant rip-off of The Chronicles of Narnia. Then there is the design of the White Queen's castle, which looks like a cross between Lothlorien and Minas Tirith, and various elements lifted from the Harry Potter saga - the final battle on the chess board recalls The Philosopher's Stone, while the design and defeat of the bandersnatch owes something to the basilisk in Chamber of Secrets.The problem with all these derivative details is that the twisted, quirky and often creepy darkness of Burton's work can't get a word in edgeways. Despite occasional design elements which are quintessential Burton, this has none of the strange whimsy of the original Disney version, nor the haunting and absurdist quality of Jonathan Miller's take. There are also very few attempts to address how Wonderland (or Under-land) has changed since Alice left: we get a flashback sequence with a village being burned, but not much else. Even when the characters become fractured, like the Mad Hatter changing accents, it's played as a gimmick instead of a lead-in to something more substantial.

What we end up with is a film with all the structure and balance of a rollercoaster. The script keeps hurling us in four different directions, and we can't stop for more than two minutes without something exploding or being hurled at the screen. The film never quietens down for long enough to let the story work on its own terms, and with the exception of The Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), the characters rarely resemble anything more than one-trick ponies. This is the legacy of Pirates of the Caribbean, producing a film which even at 108 minutes feels bloated, baggy and boring.Then there is the 3D to consider. Many individual shots in Alice in Wonderland seem to have been designed solely for the 3D version - something that is obvious even when watching in 2D. The extended sequence of Alice falling down the rabbit hole, or the Mad Hatter's flying drapes, or even the floating Cheshire Cat, add nothing to the story and feel bolted on, much like the 3D itself: the film was shot against green-screen and then retro-fitted in post-production. The experience of shooting so much in green-screen actually made several of the actors nauseous, and there are endless examples in the finished film of mismatched eye-lines and bad continuity, of the kind that you thought only George Lucas was capable of doing.The role of CGI in the composition of special effects hints at the major deficiency in Burton's visual approach. When he was making his early films with entirely mechanical effects, there was always a feeling in the back of one's mind that the limitations of animatronics and make-up meant that only so much of his unique vision was finding its way out of his head and onto the screen. As the role of CGI has grown in harmony with organic effects, more and more of Burton's designs have been physical realised in a way which was both elaborate and believable. But Alice in Wonderland relies so heavily on CGI that it comes to resemble the heaven sequences in The Lovely Bones: there is the same sense of a world of many mismatched parts, whose logic and composition are being made up as its director goes along.On top of all that, we have a number of plot holes to digest. We readily accept that Alice can change size by eating cakes and drinking from bottles, but why don't her clothes change size with her, for decency's sake if nothing else? Why does the Bandersnatch change sides so readily having previously given Alice a nasty wound? Why does the Mad Hatter speak in a Scottish accent at carefully selected moments? And why, if Crispin Glover's knave had his eye on the throne all along, did he wait until he was being banished to try and kill the Queen?Alice in Wonderland is Burton's biggest failure since Mars Attacks!. The debate is not so much whether the film is any good, as to how much of the end product is his fault. In spite of everything there are moments in which his true colours shine through: certain scenes with the Red Queen or Cheshire Cat spring to mind. Burton has been known to bounce back quickly, having followed Mars Attacks! with Sleepy Hollow and Planet of the Apes with Big Fish. But he will have to work twice as hard to prevent this obvious blip from becoming the start of his epitaph.

Rating: 1/5

Verdict: A soul-crushing experience


Bryon said...

I like when the people revolt against the tyrant Queen of Hearts because they are tired of being oppressed. I wonder who in the day this was written represents the White Queen? I find so much happening though that seems superfluous and it is a bit confusing when the time changes from present to past and back again. Even though I work for DISH Network I didn’t realize they have something called a Sling adapter until I was looking for some comparisons of providers because I thought my fees were getting a little high. That’s when I stumbled onto which showed me the Sling could solve my problem of my wife being upset I spend more time watching TV than with her and the kids at home. Now I have the Sling adapter and a happy wife.

Daniel Mumby said...

Cheers Bryan - despite your blatant advertising

Montmorency said...

Thanks for saying what we're all thinking Daniel.
This Christmas (2012) the showing of 'Alice' on TV, without the benefit of cinema experience, made the failings of the movie even more obvious!
Assuming that Linda Woolverton was responsible for all rewrites during production, her contribution is pathetic!
Casting a woman as a 'beat-em-up' hero is NOT a triumph of feminism - quite the opposite.
Misunderstanding simple expressions ('frabjous day!' as a specific day, rather than a father’s happiness for his son, for Pete's sake!) might be mistaken for wanton iconoclasty, but sounds more like basic stupidity.
Given that Carroll's original characters have been so bastardised by Woolverton as to be almost unrecognizable (and definitely inferior to the originals) it is worth considering how the film plays without the benefit of reading Carroll.
Put simply, it's rubbish.
The film plods towards a predictable and uninteresting conclusion. The characters introduced along the way are irrelevant and uninspired. The repeated reminders, in the screenplay, that the film will end with a battle with the 'jabberwocky' simply draw attention to absence of any other coherent content. (Carroll’s ‘manxome foe’ was called the ‘jabberwock’, by the way)
Johnny Depp’s English accent is convincing. Paul Whitehouse’s Glaswegian as the March Hare is unexpected, but conceivable. Depp’s occasional lapses into Glaswegian, however, make no sense at all. There is no conceivable reason for a person with an English accent to switch. None is suggested. We can, however, guess Woolverton’s painfully obvious and embarrassing motivation – to cash in on the equally inexplicable popularity in the U.S. of Mel Gibson’s cod Glaswegian accent in ‘Braveheart’ (1995). (Filmgoers in the U.S. might perhaps not realise that Oxford English and Glaswegian are separate accents which would not be used by the same person in normal speech. A U.K. audience might equally not notice a switch from Texas to Bronx. However, the English members of the cast and crew would have been fully aware of how laughable it was to direct Depp to switch accents. Somehow this did not get through to the director and production team before a release which included the U.K.)
The suggestion that Alice was Charles Kingsley's daughter (AND that Kingsley was some kind of maverick investor in foreign trade) is not only ridiculous, but also insulting to the memory of a respected clergyman, historian and author. The name 'Kingsley' might conceivably have been plucked at random from Woolverton's imperfect memory, but the addition of the line, 'My father is Charles Kingsley and my mother is Mary Kingsley.' indicates that Woolverton is intent on reinventing Alice as Charles Kingsley's daughter (even though we know she was based on the daughter of the Dean of Carroll's college at Oxford). Sorry, no excuses accepted on that one!
This production is just one more example of the tendency of film-makers to expend enormous amounts of money and talent in translating into moving images scripts which are simply not worth the effort. There is a paying audience which can appreciate work which makes sense too!
ZERO stars!

Montmorency said...

P.S. Alice's mother (Lindsay Duncan) was actually cast as 'Helen Kingsley'. There was no 'Helen' (and no 'Margaret') in the real Charles Kingsley's family.
(The actual line, misheard, was, 'I'm not stupid. My name is Alice. I live in London. I have a mother named Helen and a sister named Margaret. My father was Charles Kingsley. He had a vision that stretched half the way around the world and nothing ever stopped him. I am his daughter. I'm Alice Kingsley.')
It seems that Woolverton may have picked 'Charles Kingsley' as a generic 'historical sounding' name, without realising or remembering (or perhaps not caring) that Charles Kingsley was the name of a real person, a very well known author.
Inventing relatives with the wrong names technically absolves her from misappropriating his famous name. However, this is just a way of getting away with totally reinventing the life of a real person - about whose daughter Carroll might conceivably have been writing.
Charles Kingsley was forty six and busy with the publication of 'Hereward the Wake' at the time that 'Alice in Wonderland' was published (1865). The adventures in Carroll's novel relate to Alice Liddell when she was 10 years old - in 1862. In that year Kingsley's novel 'The Water Babies' was being serialised. He was Professor of History at Cambridge University (when Carroll was Mathematics Lecturer at Christ Church College, Oxford), Chaplain to Queen Victoria, and Private Tutor to the Prince of Wales. He was also in discussion about his work 'Evidence as to Man's Place in Nature' with Thomas Huxley. His younger daughter, Mary, was also ten years old. (Rose was eighteen, Maurice fifteen.)
Kingsley died thirteen years later, by which time he had been appointed as Canon of Westminster, and had taken over from Charles Dickens as president of the Birmingham and Midland Institute. He certainly had a 'vision that stretched half way around the world', but not the petty commercial vision that Woolverton ascribes to him!

Daniel Mumby said...

Thanks for your impassioned comments. Even as a Tim Burton fan I find precious little I can disagree with in them.

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