Film Review with Robert Mann – Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland 3D ****
Alice in Wonderland 2D ***½

In a career full of movies featuring the bizarre and wonderful, it is rather surprising that it has taken this long for Tim Burton to get around to making his version of Alice in Wonderland. After all, aside from perhaps Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – which he brought to the big screen semi-successfully (the film was good but was lacking a certain something that would have made it great) in 2005 – there really isn’t another story that seems more perfectly suited to Burton’s unique filmmaking style. Now, he is finally bringing his Alice in Wonderland to the big screen, though, it is not Alice as we have come to know her. More like a sequel – with Alice returning to Wonderland (or ‘Underland’ as it is now called) many years after her original trip down the rabbit hole – than a straight up adaptation, Burton has set out to deliver a very different take on the story, one that emphasises the darker elements and tells an Alice story that has a few surprises in store, something that the original story is too well known to provide. But, with this version being a product of Disney, does Burton get to put his full vision onto the big screen? And does the entirely CGI/green screen approach to creating Wonderland in any way dampen the effectiveness of it all?

Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) is now 19 years old and destined to be married to a rich suitor. When she runs off into the grounds of a Victorian estate at a party thrown in her honour, she once again stumbles down a rabbit hole into the magical world she first discovered as a young girl. But things have changed since Alice’s last visit, with the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) having taken over ‘Underland’, her will brutally enforced by loyal servant Stayne, Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) and her army. It’s up to Alice to slay the Jabberwock that guards her evil empire and restore peace the land and the crown to the benevolent White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Help is at hand in the form of the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the Blue Caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman), the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), the Dormouse (voiced by Barbara Windsor), the March Hare (voiced by Paul Whitehouse) and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp).

Given the promise that comes with a Tim Burton version of Alice in Wonderland, it is very likely that some moviegoers may feel strangely overwhelmed by the experience of seeing it. It’s not that it’s a bad film, because is most definitely isn’t, but, just like with Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, there is a sense that this is not an example of Burton firing on all cylinders, often in fact seeming like a diluted version of Burton’s creative vision. For instance, an over dependence on CGI and green screen to create the fantasy world of Wonderland – sorry, Underland – robs the film of a certain sense of enchantment and in its place there is a certain coldness. Completely computer generated environments may have worked for Avatar but here they just lack the impact that come with a more practical approach, an approach that could easily have been adopted, at least at some points in the film. Real sets and locations could have been used to better effect than the green screen approach. Regardless, however, Underland is still realized in quite beautiful and sometimes breathtaking fashion and the 3D effects often make it seem like it is right in front of you, although this film hardly showcases 3D at its very best. The 3D is pretty much pointless in the real world set opening and closing scenes, only being put to effective use when Alice enters Underland and even then Burton fails to make the most of the extra dimension, the full 3D potential of this film never being fully exploited. Maybe the 3D was done in post production rather than the film being shot in 3D – this might explain some of the shortcomings here. In general, the CGI is decent but rarely does it really stand out, often seeming more cartoony than realistic but many of the characters are brought to life well with CGI effects nonetheless, in particular the Red Queen with her oversized head and the duo of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. The film fares somewhat better in other areas. The script, which provides a new spin on a well known tale rather than simply telling the same story again effectively blends together some rather dark and sinister moments – where we really get to see Tim Burton doing his thing – with lighter, humourous scenes, creating a good balance and a film that is never too dark or too light in its tone. The film gets off to a very slow start with very un-Tim Burton like opening scenes establishing the character of Alice and her somewhat rebellious, independent nature but not being wholly interesting. Things get better once Alice enters Underland but sadly while the writing here is good it never manages to be great. There is one thing that is flawless in the film, however, and that is the acting. Everyone is superbly cast and as a result the characters are all brought to vibrant life and they are enough to carry the film. Newcomer Mia Wasikowska portays a very different Alice than we are used to seeing, delivering a suitably gutsy and muchness packed portrayal of a rather free spirited character. Of course, though, despite him not appearing that much, most of the attention will be given to Johnny Depp and rightfully so. Depp delivers yet another amazing performance, completely stealing the show as the Mad Hatter with a performance that is frankly quite, well, mad. He alone is worth the price of admission but his strengths should not overshadow everyone else’s. In addition to great performances from Wasikowska and Depp, the film also boasts great performances from pretty much the entire cast. Helena Bonham Carter is perfectly horrid as the Red Queen, Anne Hathaway is enchantingly ethereal as the White Queen, Matt Lucas is perfectly cast in the dual role of Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and Crispin Glover is suitably menacing as Stayne. The voice cast is also just as good with great vocal work from everyone involved. Overall, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland probably won’t fully satisfy either Lewis Carroll purists or Tim Burton die-hards but this dark take on the classic tale nonetheless manages to stand on its own as an enjoyable if not life changing movie experience that will certainly keep both kids and adults alike entertained, especially if seen in 3D.


Review by Robert Mann BA (Hons)

© BRWC 2010.

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Alton loves film. He is founder and Editor In Chief of BRWC.  Some of the films he loves are Rear Window, Superman 2, The Man With The Two Brains, Clockwise, Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, Trading Places, Stir Crazy and Punch-Drunk Love.

  • Owain Paciuszko 11th March 2010

    My problem with this review lies in one early statement:

    ‘It’s not that it’s a bad film, because it most definitely isn’t.’

    I’d rephrase that ‘It’s not that it’s a bad film, because it most definitely isn’t, it’s a truly awful film.’

    Since ‘Sleepy Hollow’ in 1999 Tim Burton’s career has careened and stumbled pathetically, his vision has never been commited or fully realised to any project he’s touched since and nor does Burton seem to care. Content to languish about peppering the landscape with familiar Burtonisms – oh, look spirally things – and rely on a recurring ensemble to deliver the performances he’s incapable of directing. For all of Lewis Carroll’s vividly drawn characters, rich with cinematic potential, Burton has managed to create an insipid collection of screen presences that lack any charm, depth, humour, heart and the most sickeningly offensive of these is Depp’s bland as pondwater Mad Hatter who mistakes a wandering accent and ‘Willy Wonka’ tics for lunacy. The reliance on half-arsed quotations from Carroll’s text, or barely thought through references, is pathetic and characters are trotted out reduced to Deus Ex Machina or mere celebrity cameos; e.g. Christopher Lee’s half a sentence as the Jabberwock.

    Not only that the visual landscape of the film is dull, uninspired and scrolls by like a mid-90s Playstation game with repetitive scenes of desolate post-Red Queen ‘underland’ dimly presented and shot with barely any of Burton’s once magical artistry; heck, even ‘Planet of the Apes’ had some richness to its (physical) production design. Not only that the 3-D (which was added in post-production) has the feel of an after-thought, drawing a distinct line between the intelligently realised depth of field present in ‘Avatar’ and the near pointless occasional pokes into the lens here.

    Elsewhere there’s all the other regular Burton elements that have become tired and feeble, especially Danny Elfman’s limp and lifeless score, which reaches a nadir (even beyond the atrocious Oompa Loompa songs) when Depp’s Hatter hits a career low for all involved by dancing a ‘futterwacken’ at the film’s finale. It’s embarassing, truly, hideously, embarassing.

    I’m a forgiving sort, always hoping for a director to find past form, but Burton has been off the rails for too long now, yet, worse, it seems to be bringing him success… Depp has Bruce Robinson’s ‘The Rum Diary’ up ahead to redeem him, but the news that ‘Pirates 4’ begins shooting in the summer is a sad portent of things to come.

    ‘Alice In Wonderland’ is by and large one of the worst films I’ve seen since similarly over-budgeted, limp, lifeless trash like ‘Transformer 2’ and ‘Wolverine’, and it seems to be spared by some sort of surreal cache that comes with Depp and Burton, the tags of ‘quirky’ and ‘Gothic’ do not forgive being ‘shit’.

  • Anonymous 12th March 2010

    The film was lazy, half assed, awful. Fuck Tim Burton.


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