Visually striking “Alice” lacks emotional weight

Helena Bonham Carter steals scenes (and heads) in Tim Burton's eye-popping "Alice in Wonderland."

Back in Underland after a 13-year absence, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) finds herself lost and certain she’s the wrong Alice. The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is just as certain she’s the right one, but there’s a catch. “You used to be much more … ‘muchier.’ You’ve lost your muchness,” Hatter laments. Alice has lost her groove, poor lass, and he’ll stop at nothing — including the use of frequent accent switches — to help her find it.

This is what Tim Burton’s long-anticipated and fluorescent-hued film amounts to: a 109-minute quest to find Alice’s muchness, the very same muchness a corset-filled life in London has chased away. As a visual experience, “Alice in Wonderland” proves a feast for the eyes, a smörgåsbord of vibrant colors and landscapes, delightful costumes (the Red Queen’s make-up and the mushrooms alone are amazing). Give in to the 3D pull if you must, but this film is meant to be seen the way it was filmed: in 2D. As a movie, though, there’s a lack of emotional depth and character development that make it difficult to connect the “wow” we see with our eyes to any real sense of heartfelt wonderment. And seeing the magic and feeling it — the way we do in, say, “Avatar” — are two very different things.

The saving graces, however, come in the form of the characters, many of which are so vibrant and unforgettable they detract from the film’s shortcomings. (Stephen Fry’s Cheshire Cat could induce a smattering of night terrors, for example, as could Helena Bonham Carter’s strangely touching Red Queen.) Screenwriter Linda Woolverton takes liberties with Lewis Carroll’s tale; some are successful and some are not. “Alice in Wonderland” begins in London, where Alice is set to marry an uppity, blockheaded lord (Tim Pigott-Smith). Underland is no longer in her thoughts, and life has become gray since her father’s (Martin Csokas) death. Now Alice must weather a marriage proposal in front of people she hates wearing no stockings and no corset (she believes in neither). In gallops the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) to lead her down the rabbit hole, where everyone, from Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) to that wise old toker* the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), insists she can’t be the Alice of 13 years past. They waste pages of dialogue arguing about this. They don’t reach a conclusion, not until the Mad Hatter sets them right. She is Alice, she will save them from the Red Queen (Bonham Carter) and the lovely, magnanimous White Queen (Anne Hathaway) will take back her throne.

The lead-up to the Big Battle — a crushing disappointment of a CGI-coated finale where the seams show through — proves to be somewhat tedious and rushed. Writing is a weak point in “Alice in Wonderland,” with Woolverton providing little development on the best characters and Burton spotlighting the weakest ones. The Mad Hatter acts like a narrator/historian, but he’s a mystery to us. Maybe he’s written as an all-over-the-map chap or maybe that’s just how Depp plays him; either way, it doesn’t work. He’s an annoying kook, not a lovable one. The Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) is a rather uninteresting villain who gets loads of screentime, whereas Fry’s ominous Cheshire Cat and Rickman’s droll caterpillar are reduced to a few scenes.

Not everyone fairs so badly. Hathaway’s bright smile and chirpy manner hints that the White Queen isn’t so different from her evil sister, only more restrained. Wasikowska gives Alice some gumption, a kind of uncertain, coltish beauty and spirit that illustrate the painful tug between youth and adulthood. And yet the true, unadulterated star of “Alice in Wonderland” is Burton favorite Helena Bonham Carter, who’s simply smashing as the freakish, self-conscious Red Queen. She is a woman who insulates herself with a throng of mindless nodders, people who don fake noses and bellies and ears to offset the queen’s oversized head. She’s quick to anger and still there’s a softness in her for the outsiders, although her sad, lonely life has taught her that “it is far better to be feared than loved.” She gets at our hearts in ways the film she’s in simply cannot.

Grade: B-

*Don’t kid yourself. He’s a pothead.
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26 Responses

  1. It’s a shame Glover manages to wrestle away screentime from Fry and Rickman.

  2. it took me a little while to understand what Depp was doing with The Hatter…

    He wasn’t interested in playing him like a raving loon, what he gave us, and what does indeed feel strangely “off” is a man who is disturbed, sad, lonely, and prone to violent character swings. He’s emmulating true madness…and not just kookery.

    (Not sure that “kookery” is a word)

    Anyway, I’m with you. This movie has a lot of flaws, but ultimately felt worth the watch.

    • Well put, MH. I think I’ll have to see this one again. Maybe I’ll like Depp more. Still, I doubt I’ll change my mind about one thing: Helena Bonham Carter is the true star of this film. She gives feeling to her character in a way that no one else — besides Depp, maybe — seems to do.

  3. I had heard somewhere that Depp’s motivation was the fact that the hats had a lot of mercury in them and it would slowly warp the minds of the people wearing them. Something along those lines.

    I agree that the characters aren’t developed much, like we should all know everything about them from having seen Alice in Wonderland before, which I actually haven’t.

    I also made the mistake of seeing it in 3D and the visuals suffered from it.

    • Sounds like something Johnny Depp would do. He’s something of a kook himself.

      A friend of mine told me that the film actually looked WORSE in 3D (since it was filmed in 2D and converted), so that sold me on a 2D viewing. I don’t regret that decision. I feel like the colors and costumes and visuals are so eye-popping they don’t need the crutch of 3D.

    • As far as I’m aware, that’s wher ethe term “mad as a hatter” comes from – the hatters would make the hats with the mecury and end up insane.

  4. Amazing. I was so taken aback by visual overload that I really did not see any flaws that were not acceptable. The story is not quite right and really wasn’t supposed to be. It could easily have been named “Alice Returns to Wonderland”. Esentially, it is a sequel without a real origin. We all know the story, (or we may think that we do because of other adaptations), but Tim Burton really did not want to repeat it. Much like the liberties seen in his “Sleepy Hollow” (after all Ichabod Crane was a puny school teacher and not a forensic criminologist). I tend to allow Mr. Burton to tell his story the way he wants.

  5. Red gave it a B- too. You two gave two of the more positives reviews I’ve read about the movie in the last week lol

    • After I wrote my review I went back and read some other blogger reviews and major critics’ reviews — they were all over the map! I really can’t understand the ones who gave “Alice in Wonderland” anything worse than a “C” rating. As Hatter said above, the film has loads of flaws, but some of the high points are so high they make this a worthwhile effort. The visuals are a wonder in and of themselves, and there are a few characters, like Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat and Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, who are incredible and memorable.

  6. I too would give it somewhere around a B-. I would not say that it was totally lacking in heart–I thought Wasikowska did fabulous as Alice, even though that character was pigeon holed into the over-used woman stuck in a world where her desires conflict with the desires/mores of society. She played her part well, varying from petulant disbeliever to reluctant hero, and added depth to the story as a whole, though admittedly it was not enough.
    I must be in the minority because I was not overly impressed with the Red Queen/Queen of Hearts. True, Bohnam Carter put in a decent performance, but by the end of it she was just kind of an annoying caricature of herself (which may indeed have been the point). She did seem to add just the right amount of tenderness to this character to give us a reason to watch her, but I did not really end up caring about her at all.
    I wanted more of the White Queen, who, in my opinion, really could have stolen the show. There is something definitely off and creepy about her (as there is with the Queen of Hearts), but in a more subtle and subdued fashion–something which juxtaposed nicely with the chaos and lack of subtlety in the rest of the film. She does not take life herself, but she is obviously not above sending others to do her dirty work. I would have liked to see this angle played up a little more, especially at the end when the forces of the white and the red meet on the battlefield.
    Speaking of the end–I too was disappointed in the generic final showdown/slaying of the beast, everything is hunky dory ending. I have no problem with how it ends with Alice back in the real world (though you could see it coming from a mile and a half away), but the final battle was cliche and moronic in my opinion. Unfortunately, there is no way to fix the end scene unless you change the premise of the whole movie–that Alice is there to save Underland. It might have been cooler/better if in the end she had turned out not to be the real Alice after all, but just some impostor as impotent to stop the Queen of Hearts as everyone else in that strange land.
    Sorry for the length of this post. I did not mean for it to turn into a mini review.

    • I ended up caring about the Red Queen so much that I joined her court on Facebook. Lord, how I wish I was kidding about that! I think what impressed me was the tenderness. She really gave a totally villainous character some humanity, while Anne Hathaway did the opposite. Both were easily my favorite characters and both deserved much more screen time.

  7. M. I’m so glad to hear good things about my pretend wife HBC. People always rant about how Burton is always using her, but he’s always using her because she’s so good: from Charlie’s mother to Mrs. Lovett to the Corpse Bridge she’s different in every turn and excellent always. She is my biggest draw here.

    I really don’t like Ms. Hathaway, but anything for Burton.

  8. I went to see the 3D Imax and the bulb died 20 minutes in, so tomorrow I’m going to make a trip to see it again and hopefully it will go smoothly.

    I love reading what you’ve said about HBC. She has been one of my favorite actresses of this decade and I still feel is widely underestimated because she does play such out there character roles. She, like Depp, to me are some of the greatest actors of our time.

    Should I see it in 2D and save my 3D’s for another show?

    • @ Heather… Save your cash. This isn’t AVATAR, there is absolutely NO reason to see it in IMAX or 3-D

      • I agree. It wasn’t worth it, but I had already paid the cash so I figured why not.

        As I said over at The Dark Of The Matinee though, I did thoroughly enjoy this film. There isn’t anything ground breaking or overwhelmingly noteworthy about it. It was just a good story, performed well, and very entertaining. This is easily a movie I could watch over and over again and enjoy more with time.

        Sometimes simplicity says more, and I appreciated the fact that Burton actually restrained himself.

    • I agree with Hatter — it was made in 2D and converted. From what I hear, much was lost in the translation. See it in 2D. The colors were eye-popping enough that way.

  9. Excellent review. I like the fact that everyone seems to have taken different things from the film, and made their own interpretation. I for one liked the 3D element, perhaps because it worked even though it wasn’t designed to be 3D! I’d probably watch in 2D to see if my opinion changes! I thought it was a good film, i wrote my own review of it if you’d like to read it. I understand what you mean about the cheshire cat not getting enough screen time – he was perhaps my favourite character!

  10. I agree that the visuals were nice, but it was blah overall.

  11. I finally watched this yesterday and completely agree with you…it could have been so much more then it was. What a pity…was waiting for this one to come out for ages.

    • You and me both … I was disappointed, but there were the few breakout performances, like Carter and Hathaway and Fry.

  12. @ The Mad Hatter:

    Actually, despite the fact the riddle originally had no answer (and the Mad Hatter had no idea), Lewis Carroll got so sick of being asked the question, he came up with one I’ve managed to dig off Google:

    “‘Because it can produce a few notes, though they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!’ This, however, is merely an afterthought; the riddle as originally invented, had no answer at all.”

    • Oh, the grating questions reporters insist on asking writers. This was a good response, though my favorite has to be Flannery O’Connor’s response to a newsman who kept asking about the significance of the hat one of the characters in her story was wearing. Her answer: “The significance of the hat is that he wears it on his head” … or something like that.

  13. […] version of Alice in Wonderland–I was getting ready to go and see Tim Burton’s version (read a review not written by me here) and I knew I wasn’t going to see […]

  14. I completely agree with you about the Mad Hatter. What was up with the random Scottish accent he broke into every once in a while? I found him really annoying, which is sad because I normally admire Johnny Depp. He was definitely incoherent in this role, however, and it was impossible to connect with him.

    I think what happened was this: the characters were not built to last in this edition of Alice, and because of that you as a viewer depended too much on the visuals to carry the story, which is not how a movie should work.

    Thanks for reading my article! Yours was excellent.

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