Alice In Wonderland Review: A Bitter UnderlandS

Tim Burton once again treads on sacred fantasy ground in Alice in Wonderland, a twisted take on Lewis Carroll's classic novels. How far down the rabbit hole does Burton go?

Alice in Wonderland is a new movie from Tim Burton based on a classic work of literary fantasy, starring Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp, not to be confused with most of Burton's other films. Rather than creating a film based directly off Lewis Carroll's famous works, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Burton has opted to tell his own story, using Carroll's iconic characters and unique fantasy setting. Is that a wise idea?

We've seen the concept done right before, most famously in America McGee's Alice. McGee's vision of an older Alice, driven mad by survivor's guilt, returning to a Wonderland transformed by her own madness, was as disturbing as it was poignant, while building off Carroll's original work in a way that made sense in the grand scheme of things.

Burton's new movie features a 19 year-old Alice who's forgotten all about the Wonderland (or Underland, as Burton rechristens it) of her childhood, preparing for her engagement to a wealthy young lord. Panicking at the moment of truth, Alice flees into the woods, falls down a rabbit hole, and finds herself in a strange world that remembers her, even if she doesn't remember it. A prophetic scroll reveals that Alice is fated to become the savior of Underland, slaying a terrible beast of legend and freeing the land of the Red Queen's tyranny.

It's about this time that Lewis Carroll fans begin to feel desperately ill, and I don't want to be responsible for any violent heaving due to continuing on with the plot synopsis. Let's just get straight to the review instead.

Loved
Bizarre Landscapes: Visually, Wonderland, or Underland, as it's called in the movie, is a real treat. The bizarre landscapes that Alice and her odd companions wander through are unique and appealing, even if Burton couldn't resist including a few spirals and topiary animal sculptures. It's his thing, you know. I expected much worse, only to be delighted that Burton has either mellowed a bit with age or someone reined him in before he made this world into A Nightmare Before Wonderland. Sorry, Underland.

Talking With The Animals: Due to some of the issues I had with the "human" actors in the movie, many of my favorite scenes involved the various CGI animals populating Underland. The worrisome White Rabbit, maniacally Scottish March Hare, and standoffish Dormouse stole many a scene, while Alan Rickman's voice lent weight to the cryptic words of the hookah smoking Caterpillar. Trumping all of them, however, was comedian Stephen Fry's turn as the Cheshire Cat, managing to win my heart despite looking like a cross between the live-action Garfield and Nightcrawler from the X-Men movies.

Another Score For Danny Elfman: I've been a big fan of Danny Elfman's movie music since the original Batman films, though I, like many others, have felt his work with Burton was getting a bit too formulaic. While he does explore some familiar territory with the Alice score (a women's chorus lala-ing is one of Elfman's trademarks), he seems to have matured somewhat, creating a sweeping fantasy score that is just as important (or possibly more so) to the film than the plot or the actors.

Hated
Through The Looking Glass Darkly: This is not Lewis Carroll's Wonderland. Hell, this isn't even Disney's Wonderland. Rather than the fine episodic tales presented in the original works, or the woefully inaccurate yet appealing animated movie, this is a story of a young woman learning to make her own way in the world, not living life to please others, using Wonderland as a backdrop. Burton takes elements from Carroll's works, tosses them in a blender, and pours them out into a mold more fitting his vision as a director and storyteller. Unfortunately it's a mold he's used far too often, and the ingredients he adds to help make the story his own - his wife, the Mad Hatter's origin story, and renaming Wonderland to Underland - feel forced rather than natural.

I won't even get into the plot revolving around Alice being the chosen one who must defeat the Jabberwocky on the Frabjous Day with the Vorpal sword. My head will explode.

It's a generic fantasy film that Burton is trying to liven up by including well-known characters from a beloved franchise. It's the movie equivalent of Sonic & The Black Knight.

What Big Eyes You Have: How was the acting in Alice in Wonderland? It's hard to say, mainly because 80% of the human characters in the film have been twisted into hideous mockeries of real people, thanks to the magic of truly awful computer effects. Helena Bonham Carter's oversized head is the most distracting thing since Helena Bonham Carter's actual head. They've taken Crispin Glover, already a wiry sort of fellow, and stretched him to ridiculous proportions, and sat him upon a CGI horse with a bad frame rate. I have no idea what they did to Johnny Depp's eyes, but it makes him painful to watch, and Tweedledee and Tweedledum, both portrayed by Matt Lucas, just seem wrong. That's the only word I can come up with. Wrong.

Not only do these CGI distortions make these bizarre characters nearly unwatchable, their outrageouseness completely overshadows Mia Wasikowska's already understated performance as Alice. Then again, considering most of the marketing material for the movie features the Mad Hatter instead of the titular heroine, maybe that was the point all along.

Useless 3D: Alice in Wonderland doesn't seem to be a movie that was made with 3D in mind, yet most of the theaters showing it in my area force you to don a pair of plastic 3D glasses to watch the film. Watching a movie with glasses on top of my regular vision correction lenses is uncomfortable enough, but when the payoff is this minimal, it's hardly worth the effort. Aside from a few bits of scenery and some background creatures flying towards the screen, most of the 3D effects in the movie are simple depth perception tricks. In fact, it almost feels like some of the 3D elements were added after the fact, without any real thought as to how they would affect the film, such as branches in the foreground as characters travel through the forest, obscuring your view of the action, as it were. If you wind up seeing the 2D version of the movie, don't worry - you're not missing anything.

Of all the variations on the Alice in Wonderland story I've seen over the years, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is by far the loosest interpretation of the source material, if you could even call it an interpretation. Burton has said that he never connected emotionally with the original story of Alice, and wanted to make his movie feel more like a story rather than a series of character meetings. This isn't a sequel to the original Alice, or even a re-imagining.

Instead, Burton treats the original story like so much wrapping paper, using the familiar characters and concepts to tell the story he wanted to tell, about a woman triumphing over societies preconceived notions of who and what she should be, by traveling to a fantasy world and becoming exactly what this other society expects her to be. Burton's twisted sense of art design may have mellowed over the years, but it's been replaced with a twisted sense of plot, resulting in a tangled mess of a movie hanging onto Carroll's work like a drowning man clinging to a piece of driftwood.

Alice in Wonderland was directed by Tim Burton, released on March 5th by Walt Disney Pictures.

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