If something doesn’t feel right from the start in Tim Burton’s new Alice in Wonderland, rest assured you are not alone in this assessment. One might forgive Burton for trying something new — Alice has been put to film at least 20 times — but there are risks associated with meddling with a classic.
If anyone should know, it’s Tim Burton. His 2001 remake of Planet of the Apes was a debacle of immense proportions, and his take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, while better than Apes, was unnecessary at best, insulting at worst.
As he did with Apes, Burton takes the guts of the Alice in Wonderland tale and turns it inside out. Here, Alice is 19 years old, and her visit to Wonderland at age six is but a hazy memory. Now she finds herself about to be married to an aristocratic drip so an escape is in order: It’s down the rabbit hole again to revisit some of her old pals.
The usual Alice crew is here in one form or another: The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is madder than ever, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) is still up to her decapitatory antics, and the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) is still evaporating, though perhaps he’s fatter now than ever.
Sounds familiar, but there’s not a lot of rhyme or reason to Alice’s adventure on this trip, and it plays a lot like a scrambled-up highlights reel of the Lewis Carroll adventure. There is a tea party, magical shrinkage and growth, “Off with her head!,” and a Jabberwocky, but it’s all mixed up and random as we hop from one set piece to another. Characters are thrown together in new combinations, others are evolved into wholly new roles, and it all culminates in a real oddity: A massive chessfield battle between the Red Queen and the White Queen that has an armored Alice fighting the Jabberwocky and, even more baffling, the Mad Hatter dueling the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover).
Burton’s liberties with Carroll’s prose are at least somewhat redeemed by his use of imagery, and in 3D the film is often striking. But much of the production still feels undercooked, with certain CGI-heavy sequences (as if there were any non-CGI-heavy sequences in the film, I guess) looking jerky and jumpy, like they’d been rendered years ago instead of in 2010. Some bits, like the vanishing Cheshire Cat effect, seem almost juvenile.
The acting bears some notice, as well: Bonham Carter utterly steals the show in a way she hasn’t done since Fight Club, offering a pig-headed and Napoleonic Red Queen that is of course beyond cruel but is also actually a little sympathetic. If Burton really wanted to remake Alice with panache, he should have simply told it from her point of view — the world against this embattled and misunderstood leader. Depp’s Hatter, however, is a wash, a greatest hits compilation of “crazy” Depp characters all rolled into one unfulfilling whole: Jack Sparrow, Edward Scissorhands, and a little Hunter S. Thompson in a red wig. Mia Wasikoska’s Alice is a totally blank slate, mostly a case of missed opportunity.
Rest assured, Burton isn’t done with the remakes. For his next film he will actually be remaking his own work, a redo of his 1984 indie monster-dog production Frankenweenie. Gosh, I can’t wait.