This weekend, my daughter and I went to see Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland." My daughter, who is eleven, and well read for her age and very bright really liked the movie, though she had some points to quibble about. I, on the other hand, found myself underwhelmed by this rather lackluster movie. I've been a fan of Tim Burton's since I saw "Pee-Wee's Big Adventure" when it first came about. We have an overlapping sensibility which is probably what draw me to his work. I've found something to enjoy in all of his movies except "Planet of the Apes," and while I admire the design of "The Nightmare Before Christmas," I find the film itself unengaging.
I had a similar problem with "Alice in Wonderland." As I'm sure you know by now AIW is not a straight adaptation of the beloved books by Lewis Carroll, but is actually a sequel in which a 19-year old Alice finds herself back in Wonderland in order to save it from the Red Queen. What you may not know is that there is absolutely no reason for this change. Not only does Alice not remember ever having been to Wonderland in the first place, but once she arrives, she essentially follows the same steps that Alice does in the Carroll story; she follows the White Rabbit down the whole, she drinks and gets small, forgets the key, then has to eat to get big, she meets the caterpillar who asks her who she is, she meets the Cheshire Cat, she attends the not so mad tea party, and so on. The only real reason to change course from the genuine Alice story is so that Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter can appear in more than just one scene and so that Alice can fight the Jabberwocky at the end of the movie. So storywise, and characterwise, everything is really dulled down and unengaging. Over familiaririty to the story could partially be blamed, but I think its more that there's a lack of enthusiasm for the story or characters on the part of everyone involved in making this movie.
What about just watching it for the eye candy? I thought I'd at least get that from this film, but even that was lacking. When Alice emerges into Wonderland, it's meant to evoke Dorothy stepping out into technicolor Oz, but visually, even with the 3-D which never makes you feel as if you are in an immersive environment, there are none of the "ahs" you get from Oz. The design feels incredibly lazy.
Visually I liked 2 moments in the entire movie: the scene where the Red Queen is questioning the frog footmen (with the fish moving alongside of her) and the extremely brief scene of the White Queen outside of her castle with her people where everything was in pale white and pink with some black and grey. I also found Mia Wasikowska to be quite beautiful in a pre-Raphaelite Gwyneth Paltrow manner. Mainly though, I found myself longing for the days before CGI when people had to actually make things. This is mainly because the CGI, which dominates the film to the extent that you wonder why it wasn't just completely animated, is pretty unconvincing. Pixar movies are not meant to look "real" but they look far more real than anything here.
There's a real lack of imagination apparent, and everything feels randomly crowded together as if to give the illusion of a well rendered, well thought out fantastical environment without actually having to provide one. The composition of the lands is really poor. My daughter made an observation I shared that she made right from the first moments of the movie. It feels just like every other Tim Burton movie, the familiar Danny Elfman music, the same curly trees, etc. Witness the posters below.
I think we all know what to expect visually from a Tim Burton movie, but usually it feels really fresh. AIW felt like a Tim Burton's greatest hits package, as if Disney demanded these things be included and reined him in to fit their vision of what a Tim Burton Disney movie should look like. It's as if Disney, not content with the girl princess audience that they dominate (and unable to catch that elusive boy audience) has decided to try and secure the girl audience who's not into princesses but likes edgier fare; watered down edgier fare like "Twilight." The whole movie feels lifeless and like no one's heart is in it. I have a real love/hate relationship with the Disney empire. I admire it's creative aspirations and achievements immensely, but loathe its corporate nature in it's crass commercialization and money grabbing nature, and that is mostly what I felt watching this movie. I had the same feelings of animosity that I have whenever I see a trailer for one of their cheap straight to video sequels such as "Cinderella 3" at the beginning of one of their videos/DVDs and the voice over announcer declares it as "a timeless classic" when clearly it's not. Watching AIW I felt like I was watching a thinly disguised ad for their theme parks, with the less than subliminal design element of the two queen's castles.
Coincidence of design? I doubt it. Whenever one of the castles appeared I thought about being on Main Street USA and if I went straight through I'd be in Fantasyland. If I took a right I'd be in Tomorrowland, and so on.
I understand why people are constantly attracted to the Alice books as something to make into a movie, but reading them, it's easy to see why it's so difficult to do so. Every cinematic and television adaptation fails in someway, but this version doesn't even seem like anyone was trying hard to do it right.
If you want to watch a version of "Alice" which will feel rewarding, I recommend "Alice" by Jan Svankmajer.