Alice In Wonderland Movie Review: A Bitter Underland

Tim Burton once again treads on sacred fantasy ground in Alice in Wonderland, a twisted take on Lewis Carroll's classic novels. How far down the rabbit hole does Burton go?

Alice in Wonderland is a new movie from Tim Burton based on a classic work of literary fantasy, starring Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp, not to be confused with most of Burton's other films. Rather than creating a film based directly off Lewis Carroll's famous works, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Burton has opted to tell his own story, using Carroll's iconic characters and unique fantasy setting. Is that a wise idea?

We've seen the concept done right before, most famously in America McGee's Alice. McGee's vision of an older Alice, driven mad by survivor's guilt, returning to a Wonderland transformed by her own madness, was as disturbing as it was poignant, while building off Carroll's original work in a way that made sense in the grand scheme of things.

Burton's new movie features a 19-year-old Alice who's forgotten all about the Wonderland (or Underland, as Burton rechristens it) of her childhood, preparing for her engagement to a wealthy young lord. Panicking at the moment of truth, Alice flees into the woods, falls down a rabbit hole, and finds herself in a strange world that remembers her, even if she doesn't remember it. A prophetic scroll reveals that Alice is fated to become the saviour of Underland, slaying a terrible beast of legend and freeing the land of the Red Queen's tyranny.

It's about this time that Lewis Carroll fans begin to feel desperately ill, and I don't want to be responsible for any violent heaving due to continuing on with the plot synopsis. Let's just get straight to the review instead.

Loved

Bizarre Landscapes: Visually, Wonderland, or Underland, as it's called in the movie, is a real treat. The bizarre landscapes that Alice and her odd companions wander through are unique and appealing, even if Burton couldn't resist including a few spirals and topiary animal sculptures. It's his thing, you know. I expected much worse, only to be delighted that Burton has either mellowed a bit with age or someone reined him in before he made this world into A Nightmare Before Wonderland. Sorry, Underland.

Talking With The Animals: Due to some of the issues I had with the "human" actors in the movie, many of my favourite scenes involved the various CGI animals populating Underland. The worrisome White Rabbit, maniacally Scottish March Hare, and standoffish Dormouse stole many a scene, while Alan Rickman's voice lent weight to the cryptic words of the hookah smoking Caterpillar. Trumping all of them, however, was comedian Stephen Fry's turn as the Cheshire Cat, managing to win my heart despite looking like a cross between the live-action Garfield and Nightcrawler from the X-Men movies.

Another Score For Danny Elfman: I've been a big fan of Danny Elfman's movie music since the original Batman films, though I, like many others, have felt his work with Burton was getting a bit too formulaic. While he does explore some familiar territory with the Alice score (a women's chorus lala-ing is one of Elfman's trademarks), he seems to have matured somewhat, creating a sweeping fantasy score that is just as important (or possibly more so) to the film than the plot or the actors.

Hated

Through The Looking Glass Darkly: This is not Lewis Carroll's Wonderland. Hell, this isn't even Disney's Wonderland. Rather than the fine episodic tales presented in the original works, or the woefully inaccurate yet appealing animated movie, this is a story of a young woman learning to make her own way in the world, not living life to please others, using Wonderland as a backdrop. Burton takes elements from Carroll's works, tosses them in a blender, and pours them out into a mould more fitting his vision as a director and storyteller. Unfortunately it's a mould he's used far too often, and the ingredients he adds to help make the story his own - his wife, the Mad Hatter's origin story, and renaming Wonderland to Underland - feel forced rather than natural.

I won't even get into the plot revolving around Alice being the chosen one who must defeat the Jabberwocky on the Frabjous Day with the Vorpal sword. My head will explode.

It's a generic fantasy film that Burton is trying to liven up by including well-known characters from a beloved franchise. It's the movie equivalent of Sonic & The Black Knight.

What Big Eyes You Have: How was the acting in Alice in Wonderland? It's hard to say, mainly because 80 per cent of the human characters in the film have been twisted into hideous mockeries of real people, thanks to the magic of truly awful computer effects. Helena Bonham Carter's oversized head is the most distracting thing since Helena Bonham Carter's actual head. They've taken Crispin Glover, already a wiry sort of fellow, and stretched him to ridiculous proportions, and sat him upon a CGI horse with a bad frame rate. I have no idea what they did to Johnny Depp's eyes, but it makes him painful to watch, and Tweedledee and Tweedledum, both portrayed by Matt Lucas, just seem wrong. That's the only word I can come up with. Wrong.

Not only do these CGI distortions make these bizarre characters nearly unwatchable, their outrageouseness completely overshadows Mia Wasikowska's already understated performance as Alice. Then again, considering most of the marketing material for the movie features the Mad Hatter instead of the titular heroine, maybe that was the point all along.

Useless 3D: Alice in Wonderland doesn't seem to be a movie that was made with 3D in mind, yet most of the cinemas showing it in my area force you to don a pair of plastic 3D glasses to watch the film. Watching a movie with glasses on top of my regular vision correction lenses is uncomfortable enough, but when the payoff is this minimal, it's hardly worth the effort. Aside from a few bits of scenery and some background creatures flying towards the screen, most of the 3D effects in the movie are simple depth perception tricks. In fact, it almost feels like some of the 3D elements were added after the fact, without any real thought as to how they would affect the film, such as branches in the foreground as characters travel through the forest, obscuring your view of the action, as it were. If you wind up seeing the 2D version of the movie, don't worry - you're not missing anything.

Of all the variations on the Alice in Wonderland story I've seen over the years, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is by far the loosest interpretation of the source material, if you could even call it an interpretation. Burton has said that he never connected emotionally with the original story of Alice, and wanted to make his movie feel more like a story rather than a series of character meetings. This isn't a sequel to the original Alice, or even a re-imagining.

Instead, Burton treats the original story like so much wrapping paper, using the familiar characters and concepts to tell the story he wanted to tell, about a woman triumphing over societies preconceived notions of who and what she should be, by travelling to a fantasy world and becoming exactly what this other society expects her to be. Burton's twisted sense of art design may have mellowed over the years, but it's been replaced with a twisted sense of plot, resulting in a tangled mess of a movie hanging onto Carroll's work like a drowning man clinging to a piece of driftwood.

Alice in Wonderland was directed by Tim Burton, released on March 4 by Walt Disney Pictures.

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Comments

    LCB, I would really love to see your sources for that comment. Alice's Adventures In Wonderland was originally a story told to a girl named Alice during a long boat ride, to entertain her. At least, that's the story I know.

    Also, Burton's creative input to Nightmare Before Christmas was largely just writing the poem upon which it was based. Other than that, and being 'producer', he did very little other than approve ideas from others (concept art, storyboards, etc).

    I'm not a burton fan, I've yet to forgive him for effing up Batman to terribly. Big Fish was fantastic, everything else he's done may as well be the same film...

      The original version begins with Alice and her sister sitting on the bank of a river. The sister is reading a book, but Alice is so bored by it because of its lack of pictures that she falls asleep. On waking (or perhaps not) she sees the White Rabbit and things move off down the rabbit hole.

    god i'm so sick of tim burton's films.

      +1

      most overrated piece of crap.
      doesn't help with his stupid wife being in everything.

      i like johnny depp tho, but his role was crap and the performance wasn't that entertaining. i mean can't johnny give tim burton films a rest and can't tim and helena do something DIFFERENT for once. does the same thing over and over again. just thankgod tim burton never touched any of the harry potter films helena is in.

        You're right, because JD has never done anything else... :S

    I didn't see it in 3D, but I walked away from the theatre entertained.

    I found it engaging to the end, even if Johnny Depp kept slipping out of his accent and the movie at the start was a bit difficult to hear (but I was at a cheap cinema, not one of the big multiplexes).

    Mind you, I paid $6 for the ticket. I figured the movie was definitely worth that.

    And yes, Stephen Fry did an excellent job.

    Tim Burtons mind: "Hmm, how can I make this story about a girl wondering through a fantastical land of adventures in to a story about Johnny Depp?"

    It'll never be as brutal as that video game adaption of Alice .. that was sick ... also .. it was very old .. maybe 90's .. my memory don't stretch that far

    How is it that Anne Hathaway's Horrible performance continues to go unmentioned?!

    After 5 seconds of her on screen I was gagging and scoffing whenever she appeared.

    Thank god they included Alan Rickman!

      I agree. Anne Hathaway's performance was comparable to some of the junior high theater class "actresses" that I've seen. It's as if someone only told her one or two traits that her character should have(whispy, and ditzy), and she held on to those two traits so tightly that it was painful to watch. Hers was a very one-dimensional character. Actually, most were in this film, unfortunately.

    Isn't this a games site? Stick to games, I already have a film site for film reviews.

    I enjoyed this film.

    I'm not an obsessive fan of Carroll, and not read the books, and virtually every version of this story has been different to the last so to bitch about it not being true to the original seems a bit disingenuous, especially when praising Disney’s ‘classic’ animated offering. But who am I to judge?

    As to the comment that everything was just a little bit “wrong”, I feel, misses the point. It was meant to be a little bit wrong, a little bit off-putting. Big heads here , long limbs there, odd eyes, and freaky White Queens to boot. Despite its beauty you are not meant to be 100% comfortable with it. You are meant to not quite trust anything about this world. And if you don’t come out of the Cinema Wondering if ‘Wonderland’ is actually gonna be better off in the hands of the obviously equally crazed White Queen then, my lad, you have not been paying attention.

    And the Cheshire Cat Rules

    I agree with Stephen R above.
    Wonderland/Underland is meant to look weird and wonderful. I loved the effects, it just added to the weirdness of Wonderland.

    I thoroughly enjoyed this movie. And I loved the art style in the movie (and I couldn't help think that the Red Queen's castle reminded me of a demented version of the Disney castle that you see in the Disney logo at the beginning).

    I could tell right away that the review was obviously bias against Burton. If you go to a Burton movie expecting a 'normal' experience, and one of the only positives you have taken from the movie is that Burton either mellowed out or has been reined in some, you're obviously not a fan of Burton's movies.
    Ok, you never want bad acting in a movie, you see it in 3D pointlessly, genuine negatives - although the issue with 3D is mainly negative because the reviewer felt wearing 3D glasses over his regular glasses wasn't worth the benefit, suprised how long the movie went for didnt come into the review as you didn't like sitting around in uncomfortable underwear for that long? :S
    I look forward to seeing the movie, i go in expecting a Tim Burton movie, if the acting is sub par then the fact Stephen Fry is there should cheer me up ;)

      The problem is that "a Tim Burton movie" has become shorthand for a bipolar mess of a film with the exact same themes as all of his others, starring the exact same actors as all of his others, looking the same as all of his others.

      It's one thing to have a signature style, many directors do. The problem with Burton is that he has become the Michael Bay of teenage pseudo-goth, liked-it-before-it-was-cool people everywhere.

    Tim Burtons remake of Micheal Jackson's Moonwalking Pepsi Advertisement: starring Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp

    Tim Burtons Starsky & Hutch starring Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp

    Tim Burtons Rambo vs. Luke Skywalker starring Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp

    Ad nauseam

    Lewis Carroll actually originally called the place 'underland' in the original story that he wrote for his daughter, Alice. They make a slight reference to this in the movie where the say that as a child she thought the place was called Wonderland.

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