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Movie Review: “Alice in Wonderland” – The Rabbit Hole Only Goes So Deep

7 Mar 2010

FOUR DAYS PRIOR TO THE RELEASE of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” CollegeHumor released a little ditty titled “Tim Burton’s Secret Formula.” The parodic video centers on a caricature of Burton, dolled up in violet-tinted shades and frizzled hairdo, “brainstorming” his latest adaptation of the Pied Piper tale. “He’s an outcast,” the madman ventures, getting a grip on his lonesome protagonist, “and no one understands him.” An assistant, eyes rolled, finishes the sentence for his director: “He hates his dad and he lives in the evil suburbs. I got it.” Here the humor site calls Burton out on his formula. His characteristic tale of black sheep overcoming conformity is on full display in “Alice,” the result a psuedo-goth envisioning that flamboyantly stumbles its way to the finish line.

That’s not to say “Alice in Wonderland” is a bad film. I only have harsh words because of what it could have been. It is a visually magical, surprisingly adult movie with a few moments of real heart.

Neither a sequel of past “Alice” films nor a re-imagining of the Lewis Carroll novel in Burton’s eyes, the new plot instead visits our dear Alice Kingsley (Mia Wasikowska) 13 years later, her memories of Wonderland now only inklings of a dream. With (ad)venturous businessman father dead and mother worried for her daughter’s future, our heroine is about to be married off to a lord’s oafish son and live the empty aristocratic life of ballroom dances and gossip. It’s not long before she starts questioning the future she is predetermined to live. It’s not much longer before she escapes the party to trail a curious rabbit – dressed in a tailcoat? – and find herself hurtling down a certain familiar hole.

Wonderland has now been recast as Underland, certain regions devastated in post-apocalyptic fashion by the bulbously-headed Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her heart-emblazoned card soldiers. In this lushly inverted world, Burton’s cartoon aesthetic blossoms. We encounter the pantheon of old Wonderland friends. Among them, the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) still intones wisdom through wisps of smoke; the vapor grin of the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) continues to widen, his low voice coy with knowing; the White Rabbit is ever stuttering and neurotic (Michael Sheen); finally, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) reintroduces himself as the eccentric, wide-eyed leader of this rogue pack, loyal to the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and protective of their old friend Alice.


But is she “that” Alice? The Wonderland inhabitants and Alice herself debate the issue incessantly. Burton, for better or worse, threads the disjointed illogical encounters which so characterized the book into a plotted journey of individuation. The Oraculum, a document which transcribes both past and future, foretells Alice will slay the feared Jabberwocky, the Red Queen’s prized beast. But Alice claims she could never do such a thing. She is not mad like them – at least she doesn’t think so.

Nevertheless, many of the characters are relatable and performed with true gusto. Wasikowska especially plays Alice with the right balance of strength and indignation – the teenage response to the unfamiliar. Johnny Depp also inhabits the Hatter with wonderful Wonka weirdness. Yet the Hatter also struggles with a dark side, bitter of the destruction in Wonderland, which emerges curiously in a Scottish accent (maybe invoking its people’s independence from the British? I’m taking stabs in the dark here).

Unfortunately, Burton drives these conflicted characters toward a final action-driven climax that is predictable and insipid, the combat not so much Aragon as it is Eragon. Here the film loses its mature bent. In this, Burton fails the spirit of “Alice,” the film turned a lame vessel for Alice’s arc towards self-discovery.

Despite the formulas abound, “Alice” is undeniably a visual feast and, at least for the first two acts, a promising film about growing up. Escaping the monotony of life is overdone and perhaps only a young person’s luxurious dream, yes, but it is also a reflection of our own aspirations, at least once long ago.

Why is a raven like a writing desk?” the Mad Hatter asks Alice repeatedly. Such mysteries without answers seem to her part of a dismissible dream, but they are more real than she knows. Alice’s adventures in Wonderland are in fact a testament to our ability to overcome fear of the unknown, to discern truths not imposed by a Queen, an aristocrat’s expectations or even logic. Perhaps, they are instead best realized through a little dash of madness. If only it were done without a sword and shield.

Rating: 3.5/5

What was your opinion of the film? Did it matter to you that Burton deviated from Carroll’s original literature? Do you think the finale was successful or at all enjoyable? Please comment and tell us what you think!

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. J King permalink
    15 Mar 2010 4:20 PM

    Had Avitar not beat Alice to the box office this might have been the mega hit of 2009 …..I think it was an excelent mix of old drama and new technique….4* out of 5.

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