Alice’s Wonderland isn’t so wonderful

24 March 2010

Written by: Kelly Theobald

Lewis Carroll must be turning in his grave right now.

In the latest adaptation of Carroll’s beloved children’s classic, Tim Burton presents a bland vision of a wonder-less Wonderland.

The film introduces a detached and socially-defiant Alice, played by Canberra’s Mia Wasikowska. Although the awkwardness of her character seems a little contrived at times, Wasikowska is effectively whimsical as the now 19-year-old.

Devastated by the death of her equally fanciful father and unable to conform to the confines of not-so-polite Victorian society, Alice’s life takes a fantastical turn after she accidently enters the barren wasteland that is Burton’s superfluously renamed “Underland”.

In interesting contrast to Carroll’s original, a recurring childhood dream has seen Alice visit Underland before. On return, she is predetermined to partake in a virtually plotless journey to save the once-wonderful Underland from the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her headless reign.

This dark twist thankfully demands more praise than the foolish recount of Willy Wonka’s troubled past in the 2005 Burton remake of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.

The young Alice is captured beautifully in an indulgent flashback sequence. With its vibrant colours and sparkling scenery, this is the only instance wherein viewers can appreciate Underland in all its former glory.

For the most part, Burton makes an exasperating attempt to highlight the story’s dark themes. In turn, all that was once intriguing about Wonderland is whitewashed. There are no rhymes or riddles – none of the brilliant illogicality which has enabled Carroll’s novels to enthral centuries of children, and parents.

And while the 3D effects are no doubt compelling, one can’t help but wonder whether all the visual gymnastics are just a colourful way of covering up the film’s overall lack of substance.

Comprising of a typical struggle between good (the White Queen) and evil (the Red Queen), Linda Woolverton’s screenplay is elementary to the point of boredom. And with the inclusion of talking dogs and cringe-inducing dance scenes, this film has all the ambitions of a generic Disney production (think Shrek). A win for the under-eights – yes, but spare a thought for the many parents who look forward to story-time.

While earlier adaptations, notably the 1999 television movie starring Tina Majorina, Whoopi Goldberg and Gene Wilder, offer a smorgasbord of intrigue, Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is dulled and dumbed down.

It is, however, not all bad.

The White Queen (Anne Hathaway) offers some delightfully squeamish moments, for instance, a rather inventive spot of cooking involving “worm’s fat”, “urine” and “buttered fingers”.

Hathaway’s character, although slightly lifeless, stands at brilliant contrast to the outrageous Red Queen. With a warped head and zest for execution, Bonham Carter (Fight Club, Big Fish) reinforces her suitability to all that is weird and wacky.

The even kookier Johnny Depp is loveably eccentric as the Mad Hatter. A strategic personnel choice no doubt, Burton ensures that the always popular tea party scene will continue to provoke cult fervour.

Beyond the alluring assortment of teapots and food stuffs however, is Depp’s rather dubious accent which tends to alternate between Scottish and American within the span of a sentence – a technicality perhaps overshadowed by Depp’s commercial viability.

And indeed, Burton and Depp have had a long and successful history together; Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Ed Wood are just a few of the pair’s more noted endeavours.

But Alice in Wonderland is without the dark realism of these films. Here stands the blatant fact that Tim Burton – once cinema’s darkest visionary – has lost his touch.

Few would’ve guessed that when Carroll penned the famous words: “I can’t explain myself, I’m afraid, Sir, because I’m not myself you see”, they would ring true some hundred years later.

Lee Tobin is a Bachelor of Communication student at the University of Newcastle. She also writes for Reverb Magazine.