The idea of Tim Burton directing an adaptation of ‘Alice in Wonderland” seems like a perfect marriage of styles it’s probably safe to assume that Burton has spent his entire career waiting for a chance to tackle Lewis Caroll’s trippy stories. But now that he has finally completed this project, it seems like it would have been preferable for anyone but Burton to make this film. ‘Alice in Wonderland” is Burton on autopilot the story is so well-suited for the director’s obsessions that the movie is no different at all from the way you would expect it to be. Like ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,” this is another attempt to take a beloved children’s tale and turn it into an ominous freakshow for who, exactly? Children, stoners and people who have never seen another Tim Burton movie might take pleasure in the film’s beautiful look and perpetual whimsy; if your expectations are slightly higher than that, good luck getting any enjoyment out of this frustrating, inane mess.
In this version, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is a 19-year-old girl who feels trapped by high society demands. Don’t worry, she rebels against her social trappings. How, you ask? By saying lots of ridiculous things to everyone she meets and then pouting when people point out that she is saying ridiculous things. Her mother is stuffy, her peers are shallow and she’s supposed to marry a guy who doesn’t understand her at all someone give this girl a place where her own kookiness doesn’t reign supreme.
Luckily for her, she spots the White Rabbit at a garden party and follows him down the rabbit hole to Underland (not Wonderland, mind you. Apparently there’s a difference). That’s where things get interesting, only… they don’t. The film’s visuals are admittedly masterful on the surface, Underland is a vast, fully envisioned world unto itself. But under Burton’s direction, Alice’s wonderland feels like business as usual it’s an unusual place in the most routine, disenchanted way. The famous characters from Carroll’s story Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, the bobble-headed Queen of Hearts don’t seem like exuberant fantasies. Instead, they’re one-note quirks in a movie that feels like a never-ending stream of just that.
The same could also be said for Johnny Depp’s performance as the Mad Hatter what should have been the most intriguing aspect of ‘Alice in Wonderland” is instead the most disappointing. The Mad Hatter sounds exactly like Jack Sparrow, frequently recites gibberish in a Scottish accent and breakdances to a hip-hop song toward the end of the movie otherwise, he’s mostly just another quirky wallflower. He’s not mad, he’s just weird, and almost always obnoxious. Watching Depp as the Mad Hatter feels like returning to Jack Nicholson’s portrayal of the Joker after Heath Ledger reinvented the character: The performance is too close to what everyone would expect from this character and leaves you wishing to that Depp, or someone else, had bothered pushing the character into new territory.
‘Alice in Wonderland” doesn’t exactly call into question the talents of Burton and Depp, which remain undeniable after all, their last collaboration, ‘Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” represented a high point in both of their careers. But here, it definitely seems that they have become too reliant on each other’s instincts. It’s as if they feel no need to push each other anywhere outside of very familiar boundaries. Because of this, ‘Alice is Wonderland” is not only dull and wholly predictable, it’s also stifled a film that keeps encouraging imagination and absurdity when it really could have used just a little of either.
Silverstein is a member of the class of 2011.