When released earlier this year, ALICE IN WONDERLAND immediately revealed itself as one of Tim Burton’s lesser projects. Burton is a great talent who alternates between more ambitious and personal projects that he develops to suit his own unique tastes (A NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS) and big-budget studio blockbusters, which hopefully earn enough cash to induce Hollywood to keep indulging him on his less commercial projects. Unfortunately, the studio-originated films tend to be action flicks (like PLANET OF THE APES and this one); and rather like another eccentric visual stylist – the late, great Mario Bava – Burton has proven time and again that his forte does not lie in directing action set-pieces.
The Tim Burton sensibility is a perfect match for bringing Lewis Carroll to life; unfortunately, when the screenplay gets around to creating a story to take place in this world, it becomes awkward and dull, delivering exposition in a big information dump – a disappointing development, considering that screenwriter Linda Woolverton previously scripted Walt Disney’s high-water mark in traditional animation, BEAUTY AND THE BEAST (1990). Although giving full bloom to Burton’s visual aesthetic, ALICE IN WONDERLAND ultimately opts for layering Lewis Carroll’s source material with an out-sized tea-kettle full of generic fantasy-action heroics that seemed lifted from the Harry Potter films and/or THE LORD OF THE RINGS. It is as if some nervous studio exec at Walt Disney Pictures realized that the original material would be great draw for little girls but but decided that soldiers, swords, and dragon-slaying were necessary to draw in the boys.
This would not have been so bad, if Woolverton’s screenplay had been able to integrate the required elements, but they feel awkwardly shoe-horned into a narrative that can ill support them, leading to a generic, predictable quality lacking in much-needed surprises. Rather cleverly, the scenario suggests we are seeing a sequel to the familiar story, beginning with a prelude, set in the real world, which depicts the young Alice haunted by recurring nightmares of Wonderland; years later, Alice, now a young adult (Mia Wasikowska), is maneuvered into an arranged marriage with an upper-class twit obviously wrong for a young woman of her unorthodox sensibility. This sequence has a nice Jane Austen feel that contrasts nicely with the later fantasy land stuff; it’s all about social conventions and marrying well. Will Alice do what is expected of her by her family and society, or will she rebel?
Opting for flight over fight, Alice ends up down the rabbit hole again, finding herself in Wonderland – which, we are told, is actually called “Underland” by its inhabitants. Here, Alice once again finds herself expected to act in a certain way – in this case, to be a champion who will slay Jabberwock, a terrifying creature that keeps the Underland populace from rising up against the tyrannical Red Queen (Helana Bonham Carter, giving it her all).
ALICE IN WONDERLAND presents a direct parallel between the two sets of expectations that Alice faces, suggesting that she will defy them in the fantasy world as well as in the real world. Instead, the story builds to her doing the predicted thing, which seems to be a terrible miscalculation in terms of Alice’s character arc. The script tries to justify this by suggesting that Alice is learning to do the impossible (i.e, contravene conventions and take her own path), but it is too clear from the beginning that Alice considers herself (thanks to her late father’s tutelage) a defier of convention.
What the script really needed was to give us an Alice a little less sure of herself (currently, her only doubts are about the reality of Underland, which she initially dismisses as a dream), and once in Wonderland, the inhabitants should have paralleled their real-world counterparts more closely, by telling Alice that she cannot possibly be the champion who will slay the Jabberwock – that way, she could defy convention by proving them wrong, instead of in the end reluctantly accepting the role forced on her by circumstance.
Burton is renowned as a visual director, but that renown tends to miss the mark, praising him for form over content, when his real strength is the ability to create worlds in which the strange scenarios make sense or at least seem appropriate. That is certainly true for ALICE IN WONDERLAND. Realized with stunning computer-generated imagery (which extends not only to creatures and characters but also to the vast majority of the settings), Underland is an on-screen marvel well worth visiting. Though not totally convincing, the stylized unreality is perfectly appropriate for Wonderland, setting the perfect tone of the fantasyland. (The one exception is the Red Queen’s over-sized head, which is too ghastly to be enjoyable viewing.)
Not only is ALICE IN WONDERLAND technically beautiful. In spite of its fantasy accouterments, Underland feels real, or at least believable; across the board, the actor’s performances are pitched at the right level, one that makes sense in the context of the imaginative landscape in which the story takes place. The most perfectly realized character, in terms of design, effects, and performance, is the wonderful Cheshire Cat, whose smooth voice (by Stephen Fry) echoes the visual grace with which the cat glides, floats and disappears – some of the most splendid computer-animation ever seen.
In a film where Wasikowska is more or less the straight-man (excuse me, straight-person) role, the rest of the cast vies for eccentricity. This they manage to do without becoming overbearing, but of course the battle is lost before it begins, thanks to the presence of Johnny Depp and Crispin Glover, actors whose penchant for the unusual is perfectly suited to their characters (the Mad Hatter and the Knave of Hearts, respectively). Too bad the film could not be bothered to do something more interesting with this potentially wonderful on-screen pairing; the two share little screen time, which is mostly wasted in a generic scuffle or two, instead of a challenge to see who can one-up the other in terms of whacked-out zaniness.
Speaking of generic scuffles, there is a brief moment when the Mad Hatter, confronted by the Red Queen’s minions, defends himself by hurling rollers of silent fabric at the advancing soldiers. For a brief moment, ALICE IN WONDERLAND feels on the edge of breaking out of its generic rut and leaping to the next level of Fant-Asia style fight choreography, in which the graceful flow silken robes, colorful ribbons, and intricate tapestry are as important as (an in fact, sometimes replace) the swish of sword. This was the kind of action exuberance that was needed to match the amazement level of the production and character design.
Too bad it’s a false alarm, and the film settles back into generic action mode, climaxing with an unconvincing confrontation between Alice and the Jabberwocky, which ends with a would-be Schwarzenegger-style bon mot. “Off with your head” is no match for “Hasta la vista, baby.” Worse, it makes no sense when delivered to the Jabberwock; it could only work if said to the Red Queen (whose signature line it is). There certainly would have been some satisfaction in seeing that awful, bulbous head severed from its mis-sized body. But that would have been a bit too horrible for a family-friendly fantasy film. As with much of the film, it’s another sign of good potential squandered.
Walt Dinsey Home Video’s Blu-ray disc of ALICE IN WONDERLAND offers a beautiful 1.78 transfer that perfectly captures the surreal beauty of Underland. There are language and subtitle options for English (for the hearing impaired), French, and Spanish. The bonus features are divided into two categories: “Wonderland Characters” and “Making Wonderland,” each of which includes multiple chapters featuring interviews with the cast and crew.
“Wonderland Characters” includes these brief chapters:
- Finding Alice
- The Mad Hatter
- The Futterwacken Dance
- The Red Queen
- Time-lapse: Sculpting the Red Queen
- The White Queen
The interviews contained therein are about what one would expect from traditional promotional previews, but the behind-scenes-footage of the actors cavorting about on green-screen stages (onto which Underland was later added by the special effects artists) is worth seeing on its own, providing a stunning glimpse of the extent to which ALICE IN WONDERLAND was created in the computer, despite the presence of live actors. The time-lapse application of the Red Queen’s makeup is interesting to watch, and it is surprising to learn that the Mad Hatter’s triumphant Futterwacken Dance was not a creation of CGI; it was performed by a dance double, whom the filmmakers had discovered on YouTube.
The “Making Wonderland” chapters include:
- Scoring Wonderland
- Effecting Wonderland
- Stunts of Wonderland
- Making the Proper Size
- Cakes of Wonderland
- Tea Party Props
These chapters get a bit more into behind-the-scenes details of interest to fans with a yearning to learn the processes of film-making. Danny Elfman is a particularly good interview in “Scoring Wonderland.” As informative as the pieces are, some obvious questions are left unanswered, such as why some of the Underland cast (e.g., Helena Bonham Carter) wore actual costumes, while most of characters (such as Crispen Glover’s Knave of Hearts) were shot with the actors in green motion-capture leotards, onto which computer-generated costumes were added later. For those less interested in technical details, the “Cakes of Wonderland” is an amusing look at a pair of bakers hired to provided actual edible cakes scaled to different sizes, depending on how large or small Alice happens to be in each scene.
The Blu-ray disc is also BD-live enabled, allowing Internet access to additional features.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND (theatrical: March 5, 2010; home video: June 1, 2010). Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by Linda Woolverton, based on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Rated PG. Cast: Johnny Dep, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse, Timothy Spall, Marton Csokas, Tim Pigott-Smith, Michael Gough, Christopher Lee.