Being one of the most unique visual film artists of our time I find it a little perplexing that Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland feels remarkably familiar. It feels familiar to Burton, but it’s the first time where – personal judgment aside of whether I liked the movie – I felt like I’d seen it before. Not just seen the visuals, but already felt the movie. Others may have already experienced this with a Tim Burton movie, but I hadn’t yet. It isn’t out of the question for a filmmaker to have two, or maybe three or more separate films feel joined at the hip, I just had not felt before that Tim Burton had made a movie up until now that felt like the same movie as another, or others, he’d already made.
Alice is not the Alice we remember from the story, nor the same Alice she was from the many film adaptations – only she is. Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland is to “Alice In Wonderland” what Spielberg’s Hook was to the story of “Peter Pan”. It’s Alice about fifteen years older than we remember her being from her first plunge down the rabbit hole. She recollects certain snippets of her first go-round, but in the form of odd dreams she remembered having as a child. Now, Alice is all grown up and faced with the responsibilities of choosing her path for her adult future when she again follows a well-tailored rabbit down a rabbit hole and finds herself back in Wonderland. Upon arrival a debate is carried amongst the inhabitants as to whether or not Alice is the real Alice, and Alice not able to recall any of her doings from the last adventure doesn’t know if she’s the prophesized Alice to slay the Jabberwocky and release the grip the evil Red Queen has over Wonderland.
I’d imagine that on new eyes the film is visually imaginative and a little hypnotic. This new Wonderland is more desolate and drained of a very prevalent history of vibrancy and life due to the actions of the air balloon-headed Red Queen (played with real pizazz by Helena Bonham Carter). Burton’s world of Wonderland looks like the despair of Miss Havisham’s mansion from “Great Expectations” had escaped and infected someone’s dream and everyone in it. It’s very bleak, but wondrous as it’s meant to be, meaning that it’s very “Burton.” However, with nearly twenty years worth of similar visuals from Burton it’s the first time I lacked the feeling of wonder.
Part of this may, unfortunately, be Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter who is occasionally distracting. Depp, like Burton (which is probably why this is their seventh film together) can express a certain intriguing oddness that not many actors can. However, Depp’s Mad Hatter feels like an amalgamation of other Depp/Burton personalities. He’s sometimes quiet and sincere with a puppy-dog face like Edward Scissorhands and other times he’s a little bug-nuts happy like Willy Wonka, and when he’s not them he’s dancing a dance that the Hatter hadn’t danced in years and should never, ever have danced in the first place. However, if you’re not familiar with Johnny Depp already you’ll see why he’s a fan favorite and why Tim Burton doesn’t seem to want to make movies without him.
The film really comes to life in the moments that Helena Bonham Carter graces the screen as the evil Red Queen, which is ironic considering all of the life left Wonderland because of her. It may just be that her character has a huge head which might amplify her impressive line delivery, but when she speaks there are laughs to be had. The same can be said for a good deal of the supporting voice actors as well (laughs, not the head). Alan Rickman and Stephen Fry bring a subdued wisdom to the Blue Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat, and the combination of the cuddly character design and the difficult to decipher speaking rhythms of Matt Lucas as the Tweedle-Dee/Tweedle-Dum twins make them a joy to watch.
The young Mia Wisakowska does a fine job of keeping Alice interesting enough considering the entertaining material is given to the supporting cast – which is what one would expect to happen when your supporting characters include a dormouse that’s eager to stab things and a deranged bunny who’s ADD appears to be on a constant sugar high with caffeine injections. Anne Hathaway as the White Queen rounds out the majority of the larger roles and shows you what Enchanted would have been like if she’d been cast instead of Amy Adams.
As a sequel to a fairy-tale Alice In Wonderland is much better than the aforementioned Hook and it’s easy to see kids getting a big kick out of most of it. It plays to them more so than Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory does and there are some really spectacular moments of visual flare and humor, but it also feels like Tim Burton on cruise control. It looks like a Burton film, but it lacks that certain magical emotional touch that seeps through his more unforgettable fantasies. It’s not without its highpoints but like Alice’s original trip to Wonderland it may just not get committed to memory.
The Upside: Helena Bonham Carter and some of the supporting cast members provide excellent entertainment when they’re on screen. Some rich visuals that shouldn’t be of any shock to someone seasoned in the works of Tim Burton.
The Downside: The film lacks a unique feel that shines through Burton’s other work. The final 10 minutes or so are also memorably horrendous.
On The Side: Tim Burton had said of other Alice In Wonderland pictures that he failed to find the emotional connection to the story.