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Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (Disney) represents the confluence of a number of depressing cinematic trends: the need to ransack classic children's literature for ideas, the unimaginative layering of 3-D technology onto a visual universe that would look just fine without it, and the belief that slathering familiar storylines with a superficial gloss of Gothic "darkness" constitutes a substantial reinterpretation. Lewis Carroll's eminently sensible British schoolchild has been taken on a shopping spree at Hot Topic (an experience that viewers are invited to share by donning the line of tie-in merchandise available for purchase at that teen-Goth chain), and the resulting makeover doesn't do her any favors.
I guess it's too much to have hoped that Burton would do justice to the language of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, to Carroll's intricate logic puzzles and plays on the literal and figurative meaning of words. A film adaptation should, of course, treat its source material as inspiration rather than dogma. But did Burton have to get the books so entirely wrong? An Alice filtered through the lens of young-adult fantasy fiction, complete with villains in eye patches, post-traumatic stress flashbacks, and CGI dragons in need of Joseph Campbell-style slaying, ceases to be Alice at all.
Burton's Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is 19 years old, a freethinking young woman about to be betrothed to a dull aristocratic prig. Since childhood, she's been haunted by recurring dreams of a fall down a rabbit hole and conversations with a hookah-smoking caterpillar. (Though we initially approach him through wreaths of curling smoke, I'm not sure we ever actually see the caterpillar, voiced by Alan Rickman, inhaling—perhaps for fear of unwholesome influence.) At her engagement party, Alice escapes her importuning suitor to follow a white rabbit, and soon finds herself falling down just such a hole, giving Burton plenty of chances to test out the 3-D button on his dashboard. The scene that takes place immediately after she lands—the glass table, the hall of locked doors, the "Drink Me" bottle and "Eat Me" cake—may be the movie's best moment, one in which Burton makes clever use of computer animation to create vertiginous effects of scale as Alice shrinks and grows. This scene also employs a limited color palette and stark backgrounds that evoke the book's spooky original illustrations by John Tenniel.
But as soon as Alice unlocks one of those doors and enters into Wonderland proper (which, according to a poorly explained aside late in the film, is known to its residents as "Underland"), the CG effects start coming so thick and fast that neither she nor we have time to experience much wonder at all. Look, there go Tweedledum and Tweedledee (voiced by Matt Lucas)—but before we've had a chance to witness their unique sibling dynamic at work or hear a single line of "The Walrus and the Carpenter" (the recitation of which was one of the high points of the 1951 Disney version), Alice and the egg-shaped twins are being chased through the animated underbrush by some sort of giant saber-toothed beast as Danny Elfman's score throbs and swoops. The feeling, in this movie, is always that of being frantically rushed to the next thing: the Mad Hatter's tea party hasn't even gotten truly barmy before it's broken up by invading soldiers led by the menacing Knave of Hearts (a digitally stretched-out Crispin Glover).
About that Mad Hatter: He's played by Johnny Depp in tragic-demented Willy Wonka mode, and he's been elevated from the vaguely hostile tea-party guest of the book into a sympathetic lead character who's almost a romantic partner for Alice. This isn't a doomed story choice in and of itself, but for all the screen time devoted to the Hatter, we never grasp his motivation—what about him is "mad," besides his Bozo coiffure and white, Clockwork Orange-style eyepaint? Why does he love Alice, and why does she return that love? Burton is the one who decided to give these characters pat psychological backstories—Alice must slay the fearsome Jabberwock in order to slay her inner demons—so it's up to him to come through with reasons why we should care.
Burton's real-life partner, Helena Bonham Carter, is visually and vocally perfect for the role of the Queen of Hearts, her giant heart-shaped face perched atop a tiny animated body. But for all the work that's gone into devising the character's Valentine-lollipop look and querulous voice, she's never given anything memorable to say beyond "Off with her head!" Stephen Fry (as the Cheshire Cat), Timothy Spall (as the Queen of Hearts' pet bloodhound), and Michael Sheen (as the White Rabbit) all provide top-drawer voice work, but the sense of ensemble is absent. Just as the human actors seem to have been filmed in green-screen isolation, so the voices sound like they've arrived from separate glassed-in booths. (Compare, for example, Fantastic Mr. Fox, in which the actors mesh so beautifully with one another and with their animated avatars that you forget George Clooney and Meryl Streep weren't born covered in fur.)
Thanks to the Burton-Depp-Elfman brand, and to Disney's unrelenting marketing campaign (a favor Burton returns in the movie, making both the Red and White Queens' castles look like mockups of the iconic Disney one), this Alice in Wonderland will likely pull huge audiences down its rabbit hole. As the Hollywood Reporter dryly puts it, "Disney won't have to consume any little cakes in glass boxes in order for the … worldwide box office to reach colossal heights." For audiences to enjoy this movie, however, they might have to smuggle in a batch of special brownies.
Slate V: The critics on Alice in Wonderland and other new releases