Thematically, Alice in Wonderland is an ideal adaptation for Tim Burton. It allows him to continue his career-long obsession with exploring the squishiness between fact and fiction, imagination and reality. The problem with Alice, and the problem that has plagued so many of the director’s films lately, is that — unlike Beetlejuice or Edward Scissorhand — it’s not the imagination of Tim Burton. It’s a recreation of someone else’s imagination.
As far as recreations go, you could hardly ask for more than what Burton brings: Alice in Wonderland is Lewis Carroll’s mind come to life. There are a few Burton gothic flourishes, obviously, but this is Carroll’s Wonderland, only a little more grotesque and a little less surreal. It’s magnificent to look at. It is all those storybook illustrations come to demented life and given the perfect voices. It’s a marvel to gaze upon, and though it’s obviously not on the scale of Avatar, the distinctive lush colors and eye-dazzling visuals are more fun to inhabit, all the more because you feel at home with the characters, even if there is a certain detached familiarity.
But, Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is very much akin to visiting the Mayflower that’s now docked in Boston. For $15 a piece, you and your family can walk around a boat that looks every bit like the ship that carried 130 some-odd Pilgrims from England to Massachusetts back in the 17th century. But no matter how faithful it is to the original, and despite the fact that no detail is spared, it’s hard to get over the feeling that you’re walking around in a replica. It doesn’t evoke any of that wonder; you get no sense of the hardship or the disease that those English Separatist felts on their 66-day journey. It’s a giant elaborate money-making toy: Cool to look at, but it’s got no soul.
That’s Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland: Pretty on the outside, but soulless on the inside. Like Ann Coulter, if Anne Coulter was pretty on the outside.
In this sequel to Caroll’s fairy tale, a 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) — who has just been proposed to by a man she doesn’t love, and who was arranged by her family to be her husband — spots a rabbit in the bushes and takes after it before she can offer an answer to the proposal. The rabbit, of course, leads her down the hole, returning her to a Wonderland that she’s all but forgotten — it’s less a distant memory, and more an ever-present dream that she’d never allowed herself to believe in the interim.
There, after some growing and shrinking difficulties, she’s greeted by the Tweedles — Dee and Dum — and her identity as the “real” Alice is immediately questioned. The Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) also shows her an oracle, which reveals that she is to face off against the Jabberwocky to save the Wonderland Kingdom from the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and return it to its rightful owner, The White Queen (Anne Hathaway). In a state of disbelief, Alice wonders around until she finds the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), still awaiting her arrival at a tea party, and still frog-shit crazy.
This time around, the Hatter figures heavily into the storyline — he is kidnapped by the Red Queen and her loyal henchman, Stayne (Crispin Glover). Alice decides to embark on a mission to work her way into the evil Red Queen’s kingdom, rescue the Hatter, steal an enchanted sword, and reluctantly fulfill her destiny, all the while wondering when she’ll awake from her Wonderland dream.
There’s no arguing with the splendid and fantastical world that Burton has created — it’s hard to imagine anyone other than Burton doing justice to Wonderland. It’s a well-cast movie, too — Mia Wasikowska has the feel of a young Clare Danes; Burton may overuse his wife, Bonham-Carter, but she’s excellent in this role, over-sized head and all; Hathaway does a fine job as the nice queen with something of a bitchy backbite; and Johnny Depp is good as the Hatter, though his character is not too far removed from Jack Sparrow in a different outfit. I’d have liked to seen the Hatter a little less restrained and more unhinged — Micheal Keaton, in his prime, would’ve served the character better. He might have also been a little too intense for what is supposed to a family movie.
But it’s hard to get over the notion that Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is less a re-imagining than a very faithful cover song. The lyrics have changed quite dramatically, of course, but in “American Idol” parlance, Burton doesn’t make it his own. He’s borrowing someone else’s ideas and recreating them. Consequently, Alice feels detached in a way that a concept would if the person executing it didn’t have a sense of ownership over it. It’s fabulous to look at, but there’s not a lot of joy in watching it. Alice is less frabjous, and more just frab.
Dustin Rowles is the publisher of Pajiba. He is forced to run obnoxious ads in order to remain so. If you would like to point out a spelling, factual, or grammatical error, please have the courtesy to email him. Otherwise, comments are very welcome below.