Tim Burton, wanting to put his own stamp on ALICE IN WONDERLAND, has wandered not just far from the story, but from the very essence of what Lewis Carroll created. Rather than a Wonderland full of terrifying adventures and deliciously absurd whimsy, he has created the Underland, a place of terrifyingly, yet lugubrious, bad filmmaking. He dispensed with the whimsy altogether.
Framed loosely around Carroll’s poem “Jabberwocky”, replete with a vorpal sword, a jub jub bird, and the frabjous day, this tale has Alice all of 19 and troubled with nightmares about falling down a very deep hole. She’s also troubled to learn that she is about to be forced into a fiscally responsible marriage to an effete lord with a dragon of a mother and dicey digestive issues. Alice, being a sensible girl, flees right down a rabbit hole. A very deep rabbit hole that accosts her with, among other things, a bookcase and a piano during her prolonged fall. The scene that greets her is familiar to those in the book, the table, the key, the bottle, the cake, and the tiny door that leads to a garden. This garden isnt sunny and delightful. And this Alice, though, doesn’t recall any of it anyway. This, of course, leads to the inhabitants of Underland believing that the wrong Alice has arrived to save them from the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who has conquered Underland and turned it into the sort of dark, sinuous, and forbidding landscape, this one portentously covered in effulgently colored mushrooms, so near and dear to Burton’s own heart.
Alice (Mia Wasikowska), in this telling, must steal the ci-mentioned vorpal sword from the Red Queen and slay the Jabberwocky in order for the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to restore Underland to it previously happy is chaotic state. Except that Hathaway spends her screen time doing a particularly ungainly impression of a nimbus cloud, rendering her character’s ability to make effective governing choices questionable at best.
For al the CGI at Burton’s disposal, he fails to conjure good consistently good performances from his impressive cast. The greatest failing is Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. Depp, who found the soul in EDWARD SCISSORHANDS, and the nobility of ED WOOD’s endless quest to make films that mattered to him, is here left with little to work with other than contact lenses that give him a vaguely cockeyed look, polychrome makeup, and an orange wig and eyebrow combination that has a life of its own and not a satisfying one. There is the blank look and the peripatetic Scottish accent to contend with, too. If there is a soul under all that, not even Depp can find it. Wasikowska, though playing an Alice envisioned as a collage of St Joan, St George, and Gloria Steinam, is nonetheless and unaccountably bland beyond hope. Crispin Glover as the Knave of Hearts poses and shows a noble profile, while the CGI critters are a decidedly uncertain lot. The Dormouse is merely annoying and the White Rabbit has been stripped of all personality. The Bandersnatch is shown galumphing, which as it turns out, is not something pleasant to watch, while the y is a triumph of derivation.
On the positive side, Bonham Carter, foreshortened to a bulbous head perched atop a body that diminishes precipitously in size from the neck downward, rapturously embraces the cartoon quality of her character with a shrill voice that bites off each word of dialogue with a satisfying haughtiness and a perfect sense of narcissism in even the slightest lift of her painted-on brow. The Cheshire Cat, voiced with silk by Stephen Fry, is delightfully enigmatic as he drifts diaphanously in and out of corporality with a peculiarly disinterested menace, evil green eyes, and a mouthful of even more evil teeth and luminously turquoise flourishes. Alan Rickman imperiously voices the hookah-smoking caterpillar. Clever blandishments, such a furniture with living components, and several fish-in-waiting make for an interesting moment or two, before Burton’s clunky and unimaginative direction once again take over and tedium triumphs.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND revisits throughout the riddle posed by the Mad Hatter in the source material. That would be “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” There was no answer given then, no answer given now, and no answer to the larger question of why Burton and Alice, a seemingly perfect combination, went astray.