Alice In Wonderland is not an adaptation of either of Lewis Carroll’s novels Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland nor Alice Through The Looking Glass, but is, in fact, a sequel. But you don’t need to be familiar with the books to follow the story. Quite possibly the filmmakers may be hoping that you are not familiar as they have taken some liberties with the material. On paper, having a director known for his striking and unique visual style like Tim Burton bring to the screen the classic tale of Alice and what she discovered after falling down a rabbit hole seems like a great idea. But the execution leaves much to be desired.
In order to preserve her deceased father’s shipping company, a barely out of her teens Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) is being forced into a marriage with the son of one of his former partners. But at the garden party to announce their engagement, Alice spies a peculiarly dressed white rabbit and following, finds herself tumbling down a hole to a strange and dark land called “Underland” by its inhabitants. And what strange inhabitants they are, talking animals and a demented haberdasher who rightfully calls himself the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). It seems that they all know Alice from a previous visit, one that she barely remembers and had long written off as a little girl’s flight of fancy. The residents of Underland have been waiting for Alice’s return, as a prophecy foretells that she will slay the monstrous jabberwocky and overthrow the rule of the tyrannical Red Queen. Of course, the Queen is aware of the prophecy as well, and will do everything she can to stop Alice.
Johnny Depp has always been dependable for bringing a certain level of eccentricity to a role. But as the Mad Hatter, the only thing dependable about his performance is that it is consistently awful and quite possibly the worst of his career. With the worst case of shifting accent since Kevin Costner’s in Robin Hood: Prince Of Thieves and line readings punctuated by a high-pitched giggle on loan from Tom Hulce’s performance in Amadeus, Depp is visibly flailing about, trying to get a handle on a character written to function solely at the whim of the plot.
Just as Alice believes she is dreaming, Mia Wasikowska appears to be sleepwalking through large segments of the film. It is hard to determine if it is because she didn’t receive sufficient direction in how to react to the computer generated insanity of Underland created after the fact or if she is just not that good an actress. At any rate, one is left with the impression that she was hired more for her resemblance to John Tenniel’s classic illustrations more than anything else.
Linda Wolverton’s script seems to treat Carroll’s work as a smorgasbord from which she piles elements on her plate willy-nilly. The poem was called “Jabberwocky” and the beast was a “jabberwock.” In the poem, “frabjous” was a nonsense adjective describing “day,” not the name of a specific holiday. The Queen of Hearts from Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland has somehow become merged with the Red Queen from Alice Through The Looking Glass. But to belabor this casual disregard for the material would be to miss out on where the movie truly missteps thematically.
If we go by the bookend segments of the film set in the “Real World” of Victorian England, the movie wants us to think that the arc of Alice’s character is her rebellion against the idea of the world defining who she will be using its own terms by asserting and defining herself for the world based on her own terms. However, while Alice defies the prophecy of the scrolls for a while, she ultimately embraces it, in effect allowing Underland and its inhabitants to define her. Basically, the movie wants us to believe that Alice charts her own destiny by doing what everyone else wants her to do.
Disney is presenting Alice In Wonderland in 3D, but director Burton did not shoot it that way. Instead the film was quickly converted via a special computer process over a several week period during the film’s post-production. The process was either rushed or doesn’t seem to be fully perfected though. While some of the more fully computer-rendered special effects sequences look passable, much of the predominately live-action elements, like Alice and her mother’s conversation in a carriage at the beginning of the film or the garden party that they arrive at in the following scene, look flat out (no pun intended) awful.