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Alice in Wonderland (2010)
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Hey, Tim Burton--Eat Me!"
1 stars

Having built a career on creating elaborate cinematic fantasies featuring stunning and surreal visuals, eccentric characters, quicksilver tonal shifts from the silly to the spooky to the subversive and even the odd musical interlude or two, the idea of putting Tim Burton in charge of the latest screen adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s immortal tale “Alice in Wonderland” would seem to be a total no-brainer. And yet, somewhere along the line, something has gone horribly wrong and what should have been an eye-popping and jaw-dropping dream combination of two celebrated fabulists is instead a dour and unpleasant disaster that reduces one of the great modern mythical tales into a ugly mess that is Burton’s worst film to date by far and this is coming from someone who has generally praised all of his previous efforts, considers the wildly underrated “Mars Attacks!” to be one of the funniest films of the 1990’s and has even been known to publicly defend his remake of “Planet of the Apes” from time to time.

Those looking for a new telling of Carroll’s familiar story will no doubt find themselves surprised to discover that Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton have essentially jettisoned it in order to offer up their own take. After a brief prologue featuring the young Alice haunted by dreams of her trip to Wonderland and wondering if she is mad (“All the best people are,” assures her starry-eyed dreamer of a dad), we are introduced to the now 20-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska)--whom you can tell is a free-spirited lass because of her inquisitive nature and disdain for corsets and social convention--as she is being taken by her now-widowed mother to accept the marriage proposal of a rich and cretinous snob in order to save her family from penury. In the midst of the festivities, she spots the oddly familiar sight of a rabbit in a waistcoat with a pocket watch running through the garden and follows it down into a hole that leads her once again into the subterranean world of Wonderland. Unfortunately for her, she doesn’t seem to have any real memories of her previous adventures and even as she encounters such familiar characters as the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) and, of course, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), she is convinced that it is all a dream and that while she is an Alice, she is not the Alice that they seem to be seeking.

It turns out that in the time since Alice’s first trip to Wonderland, the ruthless Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has usurped her younger and nicer sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and taken control of the land with the aide of her one-eyed henchman, Stayne--the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) and the fearsome creature known as the Jabberwocky. However, a prophecy reveals that Alice will single-handedly defeat the Jabberwocky with the aid magical sword, currently in the possession of her sister, and inspire a revolution that will defeat the Red Queen and restore the White Queen to power. The only flaw in the plan is that Alice lacks the drive and conviction of her earlier self (her “muchness,” as the Mad Hatter puts it) and doesn’t believe that she is capable of slaying the beast and sparking the revolution but as her adventures continue, she gradually begins to realize that her previous trip to Wonderland was more than just a dream and through this, she begins to gain the strength and fortitude that may allow her to indeed save the day in the ta-daaa! nick of time.

While watching “Alice in Wonderland” and gradually growing more and more disenchanted with it as it meandered on and on without any sort of rhyme or reason, I found myself reminded of a couple of earlier films with which it shared a number of points. The first one was “Return to Oz,” Walter Murch’s strange 1985 semi-sequel to the immortal “The Wizard of Oz.” Like that film, “Alice in Wonderland” is not a retelling of a familiar classic but a darker and stranger continuation in which our slightly older heroine returns to the land that she has convinced herself to be merely a figment of her imagination, discovers that it has transformed into a dreary and unfriendly place in her absence and reunites with her former friends, most of whom seem to be the worse for wear, in a desperate attempt to overthrow the bad guys and return things to the way they were. While one can understand why Burton would want to go off in a slightly different direction instead of repeating a story that has been done countless times over the years--notice how his revisions of such well-known properties as “Batman,” “Planet of the Apes” and “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” have diverged from their sources in significant ways--it quickly becomes evident that neither he nor Woo lverton ever quite figured out what kind of story that they wanted to tell. While the unfairly maligned “Return to Oz” may have come as a shock to those who went to it expecting something along the lines of “The Wizard of Oz” (which is the main reason that it was such a colossal flop when it was first released), the dark and creepy tone that it offered viewers was at least somewhat consistent with the original “Oz” books by L. Frank Baum and it also had many moments of real ingenuity and visual beauty going for it as well. By comparison, Burton and Woolverton have concocted a disjointed mishmash that consists of bits cherry-picked from the original, inconsistent characterizations (why does the spunky Alice from the opening scenes become such a little drip the moment she returns to Wonderland?), needless subplots (the entire beginning involving the garden party proposal is a bore that stops the story dead in its tracks before it barely gets a chance to start) and strangely excessive violence (including enough eyeball-related violence to make you think that you have stumbled into a Dario Argento epic) before eventually reverting to the standard fantasy film template in which everything comes down to our heroine killing a giant monster while hordes of anonymous CGI soldiers beat the hell out of each other in the background. To make room for all of this, of course, the film jettisons all the stuff that made “Alice in Wonderland“ memorable in the first place--the witty wordplay, the sly satire and the nifty surrealistic touches that have been tripping people out for generations now--but hasn’t come up with anything remotely unique or interesting with which to replace them. This is a film that offers viewers the potentially memorable sight of two of the modern cinema’s most distinctive freakazoids--Johnny Depp and Crispin Glover--going head-to-head with each other and even these seemingly foolproof moments fall apart because they haven’t been given anything of interest to do.

The other film that I found myself thinking of, and one that is much closer to “Alice in Wonderland” than “Return to Oz” (which, despite its flaws, was an intriguing effort that deserved a better fate than it received and which is well worth seeking out) in terms of inflated expectations and deflating results, was Steven Spielberg’s infamous 1991 boondoggle “Hook.” As with Burton and “Alice,” the notion of Spielberg doing a variation of “Peter Pan” seemed like a perfect marriage of talent and material but by the time he finally got around to doing it, whatever enthusiasm he might have once possessed had evidently long since faded and the end result was an uninspired slog that felt more like the efforts of a second-rate pretender trying to imitate Spielberg than something from the man himself. Likewise, Burton seems to have expended little creative inspiration here and is more content offer up exactly the kind of Wonderland one has come to expect from Burton--filled with oddball creatures, cluttered production design and Helena Bonham Carter--instead of challenging himself to come up with something new and unusual. For example, I couldn’t wait to see Burton’s conception of the terrifying Jabberwocky but when it is finally revealed, it disappointingly turns out to be just another anonymous dragon-like creature and while there is a momentary kick when it turns out to have the voice of Christopher Lee, the whole thing is a bit of a letdown. There are a couple of arresting visuals here and there--such as the sight of Alice skipping over a series of enormous stone heads to cross a river--but they feel more like isolated bits of inspiration that could have appeared in any Burton film rather than something intrinsic to the material he is working with here. This is one fantasy epic that definitely could have used a more low-tech approach to the proceedings that eschewed CGI for practical effects and putting actors in elaborate costumes instead of burying them in digital processing--the thought of Alan Rickman in a caterpillar outfit almost makes me weep for what might have been. Essentially, Burton has chosen to play it safe this time around and while that may make sense from a commercial standpoint--this is meant to be Disney’s latest product-spinning juggernaut, after all--it seems especially silly in the context of a story that is mostly about being true to yourself and not playing things safe.

As you may have noticed, I have not made any mention of the fact that the film is the latest expensive fantasy to hit screens featuring the miracle of 3-D. There are a couple of reasons for this. For one, Burton utilizes the process in such a half-hearted and uninterested manner that I wouldn’t be surprised to discover that the process was forced on him at some point during the shooting by studio weasels hoping to maximize their profits via the 3-D surcharge. The other reason is that at the screening of the film that I attended, the Disney reps and the theater had the bright idea of having a rigidly enforced assigned seating chart and, as the inevitable end result of showing up on time as suggested, I wound up with a seat close to the front and on the aisle--not exactly the prime location for watching such a film--and spent the next two hours feeling as if someone was jabbing a hatpin directly into my corneas. Upon reflection, I suppose that there is the possibility that Disney was merely trying to accentuate the moviegoing experience by creating a way to replicate the aforementioned eye-trauma motif seen, barely, throughout. If that was the idea, I must give them credit for ambition but if they really wanted to give me that kind of experience, I would have preferred to have an Anne Hathaway look-alike sitting on my lap for two hours instead.

About the only really smart thing that Burton has done here is cast relative newcomer Wasikowska--perhaps best known to some of you as the troubled teen in the first season of the HBO series “In Treatment”--in the role of Alice over any of the better-known tweens on the marketplace today. She is an excellent actress and she actually does a very good job of grounding her character in something resembling recognizable human behavior amidst all the cut-rate weirdness surrounding her despite the lack of support from either the screenplay or Burton. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for the majority of her better-known co-stars. Hathaway, who might have made an interesting Alice herself at one point, is weirdly miscast in a role that is simply too simpering and one-dimensional for her formidable talents. Helena Bonham Carter comes off a little better as the Red Queen--she has once nice moment at the very end--but she is almost literally playing a cartoon here and never feels like a true part of the proceedings. Such reliable players as Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman and Christopher Lee offer some fun with their vocal stylings but are given too little to do to make much of an impact. The presence of Crispin Glover offers the promise of some large-scale strangeness but he is so thoroughly wasted in such a nothing part that you begin to think that Burton cast him in order to get revenge on him for his Willy Wonka parody in “Epic Movie.” However, the most disappointing performance of the bunch is the one given by Depp. Usually one of the more reliable actors working today and one who can often find a fresh approach to the stalest roles, he gives a performance here that includes all the goofy touches that are to be expected from his numerous collaborations with Burton--a silly costume, elaborate makeup and a bizarre accent (this time landing somewhere between Scotland and inscrutability)--but lacks the sense of genuine inspiration that he brought to those earlier roles. Like Burton, Depp is essentially coasting here and the overriding emotion that you sense from him isn’t so much madness as sheer desperation.

“Alice in Wonderland” is a property that has served Disney Studios well almost from its inception--decades before the famous 1951 animated version, numerous silent “Alice” shorts were produced to demonstrate the possibilities of combining live-action and animation--and it is too bad that they didn’t reciprocate this time around. This is an ungodly and nearly unwatchable mess that marks a complete lack of artistic inspiration from a filmmaker whose works are usually bursting with it. As far as I am concerned, there are only two bright sides to the whole thing. The first is that by flaming out as spectacularly has he has done here, perhaps Tim Burton will now be inspired to try something a little more personally ambitious along the lines of “Ed Wood” or even the glorious “Mars Attacks!” The second is that its release has inspired the home-video releases of any number of “Alice” adaptations from throughout the decades and virtually every one of them is a better investment of time and money than this one. ( I especially recommend the truly odd 1933 live-action version featuring the likes of Cary Grant, Gary Cooper and W.C. Fields almost entirely hidden underneath elaborate costumes). As for this one, all I can say is that if you have already made a date to see it, not even the March Hare himself would begrudge you if you suddenly decided to break it.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=19366&reviewer=389
originally posted: 03/05/10 00:00:00
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User Comments

9/13/17 morris campbell entertaing &visonary 4 stars
6/13/13 Stephanie Grant Once again another masterpiece from the great mind of Tim Burton! 5 stars
10/18/11 Magic Absolutely dispiriting, the cast and crew's disinterest is palpable, especially Burton's. 2 stars
9/08/11 Nancy What a delightful movie. I love Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter 5 stars
5/15/11 stephen nettles Good 3 stars
10/27/10 daniel eastbrecht total waste of time. sterile and uninspired. 1 stars
8/16/10 Lenny Zane Depp should've stuck with likes of NICK OF TIME, Carter with likes of LADY JANE. 2 stars
8/13/10 art anne hathaway great as WHITE QUEEN,helena B.carter equaly GRANd as red queen. 3 stars
8/03/10 Dr.Lao Visually stunning but completely charm free. Wasikowska was just plain boring to watch. 2 stars
7/10/10 Charles Tatum A visual feast, surprising and never boring 5 stars
6/18/10 Sevarian Not a Burton masterpiece but quite enjoyable. 4 stars
6/01/10 Lacey M I love Johnny Dept & it was just a fun movie to watch. However could be better. 4 stars
5/31/10 User Name All of the wit and charm of the original has gone down the rabit hole. 2 stars
5/28/10 Melissa Great family show. Enjoyed the 3D at the theater 4 stars
5/17/10 millersxing Unlike most toothless fairy-tale interpretations, Burton channels the author's imagination. 5 stars
5/06/10 Lenny Zane (Cheshire Cat's about all to like about this.) WHY've they started editing comments, IF they'll retain likes of "Read This" below? 2 stars
5/05/10 Ruby Spinel Make Alice PC.Then put her on a slow boat to China.Too bad pertinence is likely accidental. 2 stars
5/03/10 John C. Lacking, uninspired. There was not much whimsical or delightfully peculiar. 3 stars
4/26/10 Gandydancer Those "enormous stone heads" were just heads, offed at the order of the Red Queen. 3 stars
4/23/10 Total Crap It wasn't great. Cliched like the others say. A rental. Wait for it. 2 stars
4/15/10 ally Don't agree w/ that bit about Wasikowska, to me she just frowned throughout the entire film 4 stars
4/11/10 Durwood This is the film for great effects, not that idiot Avatar fiasco! 4 stars
4/09/10 AC Dull as ditchwater, bad 3D 1 stars
3/28/10 ASS I hated it. Who had the idea to turn the Mad Hatter into Che Guevara? 1 stars
3/28/10 Pat Very accurate review, this movie needed a better script and editor 2 stars
3/27/10 Read This This review is bull - stop writing retard and go kill yourself. 5 stars
3/23/10 R.W.Welch Visually impressive. Okay storyline. C+ 3 stars
3/22/10 lynn I thoroughly enjoyed the movie! 5 stars
3/22/10 Sean Ross Fully agree with this review. Burton's version completely lacks the imagination of Carrol's 2 stars
3/21/10 Stanley Thai It's really worth the money to bring yourself in a magical world filled with wonder. 3 stars
3/21/10 Bean It was Fantastic! I don't get these reviews. Loved it! 5 stars
3/21/10 fred As the original story line it has many avenues.Reality and fiction for the mind. Dragon? 4 stars
3/19/10 brian Technically brilliant. Entertaining. Otherwise vapid; turns Mad Hatter into action hero?! 4 stars
3/11/10 Dawn Tallon The film was magnificent. Review is verbose diartribe.! 5 stars
3/08/10 James Buch Godawful. Turns a classic story into a cliched shitpile. 1 stars
3/07/10 Amy Lindon Unlike word of mouth working for Avatar - it will devastate Alice. 1 stars
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  05-Mar-2010 (PG)
  DVD: 01-Jun-2010

  05-Mar-2010 (PG)

  04-Mar-2010 (PG)
  DVD: 01-Jun-2010

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