Alice in Wonderland is one of my favorite philosophical texts. The rabbit-hole and looking-glass motifs represent a fantastically rich source for out-of-box thinking in dramatic narrative. Some of the most powerful stories and films borrow from that tradition and by so doing reach a depth of subconscious resonance that is often disturbingly surreal and intensely meaningful.
Some years ago, I watched a Czech adaptation of this narrative called Alice from 1988 in one of my film classes, and I was basically alone in singing the film’s praises. I easily understood why my classmates seemed to be so upset: the film was unmercifully strange, starkly surrealist and impenetrable. I loved it for exactly all of those reasons. To me, the significance of Lewis Carroll’s book was best served by Alice’s unsettling images. The film transported me to a state of subconscious disorientation in a way that no other film has.
Tim Burton had more conventional fare in mind. He wanted to reach a broader audience, which is entirely justified by a budget of roughly $200 million. You’ve got to make that money back. So I sat down in the theater with that in mind, my expectations set as closely as I could manage to the filmmakers’ probable intent.
The film delivered. The production design was numbingly abundant and unique, although I couldn’t help but be reminded of his recent adaptation of that chocolate factory movie. But that wasn’t a terrible thing. The creatures and character of environment were impressively imaginative and thrilling. I loved the look and feel of the film just about as much as I was hoping I would.
The character actors were all extraordinarily fun and effective. Depp’s Mad Hatter switched unaccountably between a slurred, lisping pattern of an implacable accent and a kind of poetic Scottish bravado. Helena Bonham Carter was delightful, as always, and sported her gigantic heart-shaped head heroically. My favorite, however, turned out to be Anne Hathaway’s white queen. It’s difficult to describe her absurd, self-aware, princess-style grace as she floated from place to place and interacted with everyone. She was a sheer pleasure to watch.
The writing was quite good as well. It managed to stay almost totally clear of the unforgivable triteness that clogs most family-oriented material. That’s a feat in itself, and ought to be commended (as I am this moment so doing).
Yet the newest incarnation of Carroll’s classic had but one fatal flaw: a wooden Alice. Mia Wasikowska (a doozy of a last name, I know) is a new face, and that really is what the film needed; unfortunately, it also needed someone more dynamic and captivating. She faded into oblivion whenever she had to share the screen with anyone else. Her performance, while not terrible, was essentially forgettable. This was an enormous problem because the way in which this film was crafted depended upon an engaging Alice. Burton’s is a hero film, and so the audience must emotionally invest in the protagonist. The casting of Wasikowska was a mistake, and as a result, the hotly anticipated Alice in Wonderland by (insert drumroll here) Tim Burton was fundamentally unsatisfying.
In all, I’m disappointed, but not upset. Filmmaking is hard, and things are bound to go wrong, and there was a whole lot that went right with this one. The other thing that I have to remember is that I rarely love Tim Burton’s films upon first viewing. They typically grow on me over time. I’m not sure about Wonderland, but fortunately, I won’t at all mind seeing it again.
Jordan Petersen is a film correspondent for Rhombus.
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