Dissatisfied with Burton's Creative but Vapid 'Alice'

Directed by: Tim Burton, Runtime: 108 minutes
Grade: C-

When Tim Burton's in his element -- the melancholic verve of Edward Scissorhands and Sweeney Todd -- he's an artist of the shadows that makes us appreciate glimmers of hopefulness, but when he crawls out of that hole for something with more of a vibrant slant, like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he's tongue-tied, awkwardly dreary and abandons control over his craft. Alice in Wonderland, his vision of Lewis Carroll's body of work, is a mish-mash of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and its sequel, "Through the Looking-Glass", that exists on some middle plane in the director's tonality. What comes out of Burton's work, a knotted mélange of hyper-inventive computer effects and stiffly unsatisfying characters, manages to burst with color and bore in the same dreary breath. Though Wonderland's an oddly beautiful place, and a handful of cherry-picked scenes dip into our capricious indulgence, there's not nearly enough sincere sparkle to give it all purpose.

Those expecting a live-action version of the '51 animation might be dissatisfied. We find Alice, played by newcomer Mia Wasikowska, now a young adult weaving through the upturned, coddled aristocrats who looks at her unkempt looks and dreaminess with disdain. Imaginative and perplexed by the world, she wonder what it'd be like flying in the sky as birds soar above the dance area of the garden party she's attending, instead of fixing her attention on her obnoxious arranged suitor. When she discovers that this little shindig is orchestrated for their engagement that she knows nothing about, she takes a page out of her now-deceased, daring father's book and acts on crazed instincts: she jolts after a certain, familiar white rabbit into the woods and away from the stiff hoopla, arriving at a rabbit hole that she mistakenly tumbles down. When she arrives at the bottom, her persistent dreams of Wonderland -- ones she's explored before -- seem to be coming true once again.

As an infused combination of Lewis Carroll's book that picks and chooses for its bidding, Alice in Wonderland has its moments where Burton seems like he's going to get it right. Her tumble down the rabbit hole dazzles with spectacle, smashingly using CG-imagery as she swirls down a vortex to the waiting room. Once in the waiting room to go into Wonderland Underland, she shifts in size -- large, to small, and large again -- in a cockamamie puzzle; visualizing this is very tough, but it's believable due to ample usage of real production-design and splashes of CG-work. We've seen these scenes before in other film adaptations, namely Disney's psychedelic '50s animation, but their realization in a live-action environment hits a deceptive balance between tangible and computer-generated foolery. Moreover, once she steps into the wide air of Underland, a sense of blow-us-over whimsy takes hold of our cinematic concentration, luring us into this dreamed-up world.

This take on Lewis Carroll's inspired environment explodes into a bizarre yet disheartening beauty, one that holds our attention when nothing else does; Burton runs the gamut of color, from gloomy grayscale dilapidation with splashes of bold color during the tea party sequence, to sunset-drenched pathways through forests. The artistry succeeds in painting a dream-like world that's alluring, almost euphoric, to our eyes, while also spilling with a sense of malnourished joy. This concentration on landscape follows Alice wherever she goes, from the Red Queen's construed, gothic hub of operations -- one that has a moat filled with floating decapitated heads that's, in its morbidity, splendid -- to the glowing trees leading up to the White Queen's celestial construct. Underland's quite the sight, whether for its beauty or its bleakness.

If Burton had stopped with the computer-generated mischief at this point, we might've had a strong outing for Alice's ventures. Instead, he reaches deeper into his satchel of creativity and pushes the envelope, overreaching the bounds of respectable artistry into excess. Sony Picture Imageworks' lackluster animal creations, aside from their host of voices, simply stick out like sore thumbs from the sumptuous atmosphere. Cheshire Cat is, admittedly, rather entrancing as he spins through the air and speaks with a sultry rumble through a mouthful of dagger teeth; however, almost everything else -- from the fencing mouse and the smoking caterpillar to the assortment of hares, rabbits, porcupines, dogs, and large cat-like beasts -- neglect to give us anything beyond what we've seen in other fantasy epics, expanding to a point that comes so close to farce that we lose our patience with the world's peculiarity. A stellar vocal cast, including Sir Alan Rickman as the caterpillar and Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, disappointingly gets swallowed up because of this.

Losing our enchantment with Underland isn't a good thing, because Alice herself doesn't really seem all that interested in her adventure -- and neither do we, as we meander around the film's bloated focus and dire lack of wit. It's understandable that a girl who's frequented this dream-like world wouldn't be wide-eyed and bushy-tailed at its magic for the countless time, yet there's a dour, drone energy to Mia Wasikowska that drains the visual chaos of its fervor. Her "buttoned-up" mannerisms syringe out the environment's fancy, making all of these gothic visions of snarling beasts, loony tea parties, and dueling forces of good and evil about as dull as a dream that you try to remember but can't. And if Alice isn't inquisitive, then we're not inquisitive; there's so much magic in the air, awesome sights all around her and things that should make her sweat, smile, and stand on her tippy-toes, but her apathy to her "Wonderland" translates to our apathy for Underland.

Like clockwork, Alice stumbles onto all of the Wonderland staples, including Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter and Helena Bonham-Carter's Red Queen of Hearts. Depp's wacky get-up actually tickles my fancy a bit, with the wiry hair, flamboyantly odd make-up, and bulging color-shifting eyes, but his many-sided psychosis is distracting -- and far too frequent. He's an odd mish-mash of an incoherent, skivvy-driven spin on Willy Wonka, a pinch of Jack Sparrow, and a bit of Robert Shaw's Quinn from Jaws with off-kilter vocal shifts, which result in a maddening hatter that infuriates in all the wrong ways. Bonham-Carter, on the other hand, amazes with her rowdy delivery of tyrannical Iracebeth the Red Queen, braying "Off With Their Head" repeatedly and shifting to a pouty annoyance when not. It's in Burton's visual creativity that she weakens, as the rendering of her thrice-sized large head leaves us wishing that they would've left her deflated and leaned on the stellar make-up work. The same also goes for Crispin Glover as the Red Knight, who fumes awkwardly next to Bonham-Carter and even more so when on digital horseback.

Burton has to shake us awake from the inert mess of CG-razzmatazz he's cooked up, and thankfully he does as he approaches its conclusion; the finale offers a display of mayhem that brings grand-scaled action in focus, even if it makes us wonder if this Alice is somehow really the oldest sister of the Narnia kids. A huge square-off on a battlefield-sized chessboard ensnares our attention, clanking in disarray as we attempt to focus on the resolution at-hand as young Alice reaches her "growing-up" point in the narrative. But it's in a way that's far too familiar, harking to the film adaptations of C.S. Lewis' work for inspiration as it pleas to the audience with easy-to-digest fantasy bedlam, and the promise for something daring and brimming with tenacity foils into little more than a disappointing memory of the words scrolled into Carroll's books.

Alice in Wonderland was viewed in 2D for this review.


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