Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, the novel, is naughty. Alice in Wonderland, the Tim Burton film, is just nasty. An expatriated perversion of Lewis Carroll if ever there was one, it is the culmination of Tim Burton’s decade-long trek to shoot in the back any of the good will he earned doing more with film history than any mainstream American director during the 1990s.
Burton spent the better part of his early career falling in love with film and selling his love to the public on a silver platter. In their own ways, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns, Ed Wood, and Mars Attacks are infected with pure cinema, and they do everything in their power to show it, warts and all. Alice in Wonderland is all warts, not remotely invested in anything that makes its source material tick and not even passingly committed to finding a genuine visual and filmic translation of a literary text of madness, insecurity, and stream-of-consciousness insanity.
Taking the bland visage of the seminal Carroll text about the fundamental id of childhood imagination and doing nothing else with it except spoiling that visage, Burton’s take on the material has your Alice (Mia Wasikowska), who here is much older in a way that fundamentally misinterprets and negates the entirety of the Wonderland text about childhood inability to cope with the stagnant coercion of mainstream society (and particularly high-class British society). It has your Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, in one of the worst of his garish, indifferent takes on cartoon logic as pointless now as they were magnetic in the 1990s). It has your Red Queen, your Jabberwocky, your Cheshire Cat, your White Rabbit. Or, at least, it has party-goers given a few million dollars each to dress up like them. And it has not one idea what to do with any of them except run around with them for the better part of two hours.
Or, no. Running around with these characters for the better part of two hours actually sounds somewhat more like the real article, Alice ‘s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, the books, which are first and foremost an exercise in the anarchy and mania of the imagination and the fables that spring forth from the more difficult regions of the mind. Together, they are an explication of chaos and disorder and the abolition of innocence and guilt. It is a carnivorous story altogether, with teeth sharpened to a point, but the film is omnivorous, trying to suck up every vague visual cue it can and throw those cues onto the screen in hopes of distracting us from the deeply misguided decision to turn the story into a narrative-based work of order and precision.
Which is where the film’s billion dollar box office haul worldwide comes in, for a genuinely challenging Alice never would have inched even close to a quarter of that gluttonous sum. Not that Alice needs to try to be challenging, but merely to be a touch scrappier and more episodic, to be more willing to explore some of the more twisted and fleshy regions of its world rather than to studiously and mechanically move from point to point. In establishing a linear narrative in lieu of the prismatic sideways tilts and diagonal lines of the original tale, Burton sacrifices not only theme and purpose but energy and viscerality.
Leaving nothing but an endless parade of pretties traipsing across the screen. Such fine pretties, in fact, that any sense of weight to the material evaporates into the air, and the laughing gas makes you sick to your stomach. Very capable cinematographer Dariusz Wolski, given a behemoth clutch of money and all the toys in the world, gives in to Burton’s vision and photographs everything with a lack of restraint that is unbecoming of the too-populated frames. Together, with Depp firmly in Burton’s pocket and the fair weather master Linda Woolverton inducing her worst tendencies as a screenwriter, everyone involved creates a film that is childish without ever being the very thing it needs to be: childlike.
At a core structural level, so many of these issues could have been avoided if only the film had actually given in to the imagery and moved away from the stodgy narrative base of the material. Had this happened, the watery animation could have been deranged, and the flighty performances could have become demented. Had the film actually understood at a structural level what the images convey at a superficial level, there would be harmony in disharmony, order in chaos, and a really luminous, sublime anti-Disney anti-fable. Had it treated this glass menagerie of visual disorder with an appropriately disorganized narrative, the visuals would have actually meant something; as it is, they feel like fake chaos sitting on top of a deeply ordered screenplay, and that is no fun at all. Everything manic Burton is doing visually is at odds with the anti-manic screenplay, and his work feels like a thick slathering of tomfoolery to hide how buttoned-up and straitlaced the narrative actually is. In other words, the film is overloaded, preoccupied, and tiring, but never as a matter of principle, never in a way that is suggestive of any wider concerns about the mind or any sense of anarchic mania. The original books have the tempo of one’s head being unscrewed before one’s eyes. This film is just “fast”.
Not only does Alice in Wonderland function like a grossly superficial top-level take on Carroll, but it feels like a mechanical surface-level variation on Burton himself. It doesn’t feel like Burton, or even someone who has ever seen any of his films. Instead, it has the musty cardboard rot of a high school freshman who heard about Tim Burton from a sophomore and was given a corpulent, disgusting amount of money to fill out their adolescent and degrading idea of what qualifies as film. Tsk, tsk. How the mighty have fallen.