By John Fanning (Guest Writer)
There are many things in the cultural gamut whose popularity perplexes this reviewer: Ricky Gervais, iPhones and nightclubs to name but a few. 3D cinema may well find itself added to the ever-lengthening list. Like most popular irritants, there’s an Emperor’s New Clothes dynamic at play here: while everyone else raves about how great it is, a few of us are left feeling a bit underwhelmed by it all.
Don’t get me wrong, Alice in Wonderland is a visual treat. Yet like Disney Pixar’s Up and James Cameron’s Avatar before it, this reviewer thought that Alice’s 3D experience went largely unnoticed after about ten minutes. The cynics out there may wonder whether film producers rely on 3D to provide depth to stories that otherwise have none. Strip away the 3D hype, and Alice in Wonderland is an enjoyable yarn, but hardly a paradigm-shifting cinematic event. Whatever the motivation, keep hold of those pricey specs; it seems 3D is here to stay: the upcoming Toy Story 3, Clash of the Titans, and How to Train your Dragon will all deploy depth-perception enhancing strategies.
Here, Tim Burton returns with his usual entourage (Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen) plus a few Britflick favourites (Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman and Barbara “Gerrr ow’a moi pab” Windsor). It’s typical Burton, so expect pallid skin and edgy and dark themes all over the shop. In many respects, the story of Alice in Wonderland lends itself perfectly to Burton’s style. There are few directors (save maybe Michel Gondry or Charlie Kaufman) who could convincingly take an audience on a journey through a world of bent realities and dream logic whilst engaging and sustaining their attention.
Readers familiar with Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland will know that the story often goes from pillar-to-post, enjoying the freedom of an unfettered world without necessarily making a point. While that works well in literary form (see The Road, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy), it doesn’t always translate well to the big screen (see The Road, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy). Before the Mad Hatter arrives onscreen, Tim Burton’s reworking of Carroll’s classic looks to be going much the same way.
In the nick of time, Show-Stealer-in-Chief Depp is wheeled out to revive our interest, just like he rescued Pirates of the Caribbean from Orlando Bloom and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from arch-mediocrity. The pessimistic viewer may feel that the Mad Hatter’s role in the story has been expanded and embellished to provide a vehicle for Johnny Depp to work his box office magic. In any event, Depp’s Mad Hatter is a curious character; a cross between a hair-dryer-wielding Sir Alex Ferguson and a lisping, dandyish Chris Eubank, providing the perfect foil for the normal (mundane?) Alice in “Underland” (sounds like a knicker shop, wouldn’t you say?) where her adventure takes place.
And herein lies the issue: Burton has not simply remade Carroll’s story in his own image. That would be too obvious. Here, Alice is a nineteen year old eccentric who is plagued by strange dreams of a world she once knew. When she goes down the rabbit hole, Alice returns to Underland. Australian Mia Wasikowska’s Alice lacks the adorable innocence of Carroll’s Alice-child. Wasikowska’s English accent grates at times, and her performance lacks emotional clout. Compared to the wonderful Bonham Carter, whose ruthless Red Queen – coupled with Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts, looking like a dodgy CGI Grima Wormtongue – is the very definition of fairytale villainy, Alice’s lack of depth precludes us from ever really buying into the good versus evil struggle.
In many respects, Wasikowska had her work cut out for her: many talented actors have been upstaged by the Depp-Bonham Carter dream ticket before Alice. Yet the film is carried by the dynamic duo from their respective supporting roles. One could argue that a film based on the adventures of the lead character rather demands a strong performance on behalf of the protagonist. Wasikowska just doesn’t deliver, and the Alice-teen is a bit of a let down.
Another problem is that there are so many other characters in the film that our attention is spread thinly throughout its 110 minute run time. Fans of the book will be pleased to learn that the grinning Cheshire Cat, Tweedles Dum and Dee and the Hookah-Smoking Caterpillar all make appearances. Yet Burton’s desire to expand on the small roles they play in the original story turns the film into a disparate, patchwork quilt of a picture. It is difficult to recall what exactly each character brought to the table after the fact, apart from a witty one-liner here or visual device there. With so much talent on display, Alice appears overwhelmed by the lofty expectations we (and it) had for it(self).
Having said that, Alice is a decent picture, pure leave-your-brain-in-the-lobby nonsense that delivers when it counts. It is a pity that Burton relies heavily on CGI, 3D and a veritable smorgasbord of thespian delights to fortify what is, ultimately, a run-of-the-mill family film. Worth a watch? Not hardly.
6 OUT OF 10
AMO would like to thank John Fanning for his contribution! Our very own Duncan Voice will be providing an alternative review for the 2D version tomorrow, so stay tuned!
Update: Duncan’s review is now live!