It's time to start worrying about Tim Burton.
I don't want to think the worst of him. I have a lot of fond memories of his films. Even his less than successful efforts like Batman Returns used to be good for a handful of indelible moments, and I found his previous film, Sweeney Todd, to be one of his finest moments as a director. Now it's clear that film was a fluke - an exception to a clear downward trajectory that started with the sloppy Mars Attacks, limped to the beautiful but convoluted Sleepy Hollow and then took a sharp nose dive with the twin stink bombs of Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Now he has hit rock bottom with Alice in Wonderland, bar none the worst movie he has ever made. It's enough to make you question whether he has any work of value left in him. Not only is Alice a staggering mess on its own terms, but it also manages to do violence to the whimsical spirit of Lewis Carroll on the way down.
I normally make it a point not to judge a film by fidelity to the source material - a film succeeds or fails on its own terms - but in this case it is impossible not to comment on how stunningly wrong is Burton's take on the books. There is no joy in this film, no wit, no cheer. Gone is the playful word games and logical conundrums of the books. In their place is a sad procession of miserable and unpleasant characters in dull, pointless, and occasionally creepy situations. On that point, someone really should have explained to Burton the difference between amusingly eccentric and off-puttingly insane. The March Hare in particular seems like he could up and cut Alice at any moment and The Mad Hatter as nonsense spouting goofball has been replaced with a dangerous schizophrenic desperately clinging to sanity after going off his meds against doctor's orders. All the guests at the tea party seem less like they belong in a film for the whole family and more like they belong a few cells down from Hannibal Lecter shouting obscenities at Clarice Starling.
Won't You Join My Tea Party?
This is usually this point in most Tim Burton reviews that the critic begins rhapsodizing about the visuals - oh, the visuals! - and forgives Burton his faults as a storyteller. But this time out Burton's vaunted style fails him as well. There are visual flourishes to be sure, but they are applied haphazardly and to ill-effect. I distinctly remember in previous versions of Alice from my childhood the feeling that some new curiosity waited around every bush and tree. Not so in Burton's Wonderland, which resembles a bombed out wasteland, all gray skies and empty brown vistas. Excluding the army of playing cards, the entire population of Wonderland barely seems to break double digits. And please don't inform me that the Queen's oppressive rule has driven the life from Wonderland, like the Pride Lands with Scar in charge. Bullshit. It's Wonderland. It doesn't have socio-political situations.
Even if the visuals were as wondrous as one could hope the film would still be a failure because of the atrocious screenplay, for which Burton shares blame with screenwriter Linda Woolverton. Everyone knows by now that this version of Alice doesn't retell the classic story but updates it with a grown up Alice on the cusp of adulthood. After a clunky opening where Alice faces adult complexities (including a woefully inappropriate interlude involving her adulterous brother-in-law) she flees down the rabbit hole where the movie bungles the story immediately and never recovers.
Aside from the fairly serious problem of being no fun at all, the script commits the unforgivable sin of attempting to have Wonderland make sense, hijacking all the beloved characters and plugging them into a third-rate Lord of the Rings knock off where Alice is "the chosen one" returned to save Wonderland - or Underland as the characters call it for no discernible reason (unless the filmmakers decided, quite rightly, that it would be flagrant false advertising to promise "wonder" in this drab slog of a movie). This story would require a rewrite to qualify for the tie-in video game, sputtering from scene to scene while generating zero energy, and occasionally shoehorning in big chunks of the original Lewis Carroll with painful awkwardness.
What there is of a story often degenerates into complete incoherence. In one scene, when retrieving a special sword from the clutches of the fearsome Bandersnatch - a scene that is supposed to be bursting with suspense - Alice inexplicably stops to take a nap. It's as if the filmmakers threw up their hands and said, "Screw it. It's Wonderland. It doesn't have to make sense," which isn't fair to the audience - If you're going to vandalize the spirit of Carroll with a derivative Narnia-lite storyline, the least you could do is bother to have it proceed logically from one moment to the next.
I haven't even mentioned the scene where the Knave, played by Crispin Glover, blatantly sexually harasses Alice, but the less said about that the better. The same goes for the Mad Hatter's jaw-dropping break dancing routine.
It is worth noting that the lone bright spot in the film is Helena Bonham Carter's performance as the Queen of Hearts. She is out there all by herself with nothing to work with, but at least she approaches her role with gusto and playfulness. Only in her performance do you catch a glimmer of what the film could had been were the rest not so far off the mark. Anne Hathaway tries her best as the White Queen but barely registers. Depp goes down with the ship here with a confused, cluttered performance as The Mad Hatter. He does a fey, lispy version of his gentle Finding Neverland brogue that occasionally drops down into a growling demon voice at odd moments. Like the movie around it, his performance is busy and showy and probably took a lot of effort but pays little dividends by way of entertainment.
The whole thing culminates in a CGI battle scene that precisely nobody asked for with Alice decked out in armor fighting the Jabberwocky, here imagined as some boring run-of-the-mill dragon. I admit I got excited when I heard that Christopher Lee was cast as the voice of the Jabberwocky - surely you cast Lee in order to give him some juicy dialogue, perhaps a battle of wits with Alice. Nope. Wrong again. He barely gets out a complete sentence before Alice is chopping his tongue out with a sword. Man is it ever a depressing spectacle. I think I could happily live to be a hundred without ever seeing another CGI battle scene, much less one that tramples on a beloved children's classic. Although, hey, if you ever read Alice in Wonderland and said to yourself, "This is good and all, but I wish the Mad Hatter would stop talking and just wail on characters with a sword like he was Viggo Mortenson," then I guess this is the film for you.
One wonders why Tim Burton bothered with Alice in Wonderland at all if he was just going to make an empty blockbuster out of it. There is some vague lip-service paid to the power of make-believe but that message would be more effective were Burton not constantly poking us in the ribs to make it clear that it was all definitely, literally happening. It's hard not to conclude that Burton and his Disney executives just wanted a pre-sold commodity, one that could launch a franchise and fit in with the Disney Princess line of merchandise. Making sure they had a story worth telling was clearly not a priority. Verdict: 1 out of 10