PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

Burton's 'Alice' Succeeds More than It Stumbles

Alice in Wonderland

Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry
MPAA Rating: PG
Studio: Walt Disney Studios
Year: 2010
UK Release Date: 2010-03-05.
US Release Date: 2010-03-05.

Sometimes, a film borders on the brilliant. There are reasons its genius cannot be easily grasped or readily appreciated - and usually, those excuses lie directly within the celluloid itself. Such is the case with Tim Burton's trek down Lewis Carroll's famous rabbit hole. His Alice in Wonderland isn't so much an adaptation as one of those often confounding "reimaginings" where classic characters and the standard storyline is mutated to fit a new vision or modern mindset. Here, our heroine is no longer a bored little sprite eager to visit a place filled with magic and mystery. Instead, she's a disgruntled Victorian teen desperate to break free of the strict societal mandates being placed on her.

This updated Alice (played with requisite passivity by Mia Wasikowska) is being set up to marry the morbidly dull nobleman Hamish. During the garden party proposal, our heroine balks, uneasy about such strict gender standards. Catching a glimpse of a rabbit in a waistcoat (similar to one in her recurring dreams), she strays from the gathering and soon falls down a dark and endless hole. When she awakens, she discovers that she is locked in a tiny room, a bottle labeled "Drink Me" sitting on a nearby table…

Once again, Alice is in Wonderland (though we learn it is actually called "Underland") and after a trial and error exercise in escape, she is immediately surrounded by seemingly familiar faces - Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse), the hookah smoking caterpillar Absalom (Alan Rickman), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), and the quite insane Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). They all remember her quite well. She has no memory of them at all. Still, they hope she will take up the cause of championing the White Queen (Anne Hathaway).

As the rightful ruler of the now decimated kingdom, she is in a power struggle with her despotic sister the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Thanks to her faithful servant Stayne, The Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), the wicked ruler has managed a cruel stranglehold over everyone. What Wonder/Underland needs now is someone to defeat the Red Queen's chief enforcer - the wicked winged Jabberwocky - and Alice appears to be the answer…that is, if she can be convinced to do so.

If eye candy had any cinematic health benefits, Tim Burton's work on Alice in Wonderland would be a massive fountain of youth spouting mega-vitamin. All the talk about this filmmaker's vision and sense of imagination comes across in every fully realized frame, ideas and creative conceits bouncing off each other like crazy companions at a literary tea party. From the look of Wonder/Underland - simultaneously alive while being burnt down and overgrown - to his take on Carroll's iconic creatures, nothing about this Alice is typical. Instead, Burton expands our understanding of what this material means, of how madness derives from personal loss, or why certain individuals hold decapitation-oriented grudges. Certainly not everything works, and there are times when you wish Linda Wolverton's sloppy script captured some of Carroll's lunatic poetry, but when you've got astonishing optical wonders like these, do you really need natty nonsense rhymes?

There's a keen sense of familiarity at play, of an artist indulging in elements he is wholly familiar with. Tweedledum and Tweedledee may look like funky flesh balls, but actor Matt Lucas gives them a loveable lameness that's hard to ignore. Similarly, Frye and Rickman more than deliver in their voice-only efforts for the Cheshire Cat and Absalom, respectively. They are so good in fact that we wish there was more of each in the narrative. Certainly, the monsters have a tactile-less CG quality to their movement, and Crispin Glover just looks silly as a seven foot tall attendant to her raving royal Majesty. Speaking of Bonham Carter, she's decent here, but not truly villainous. Instead, she comes off as sad and rather pathetic, no amount of screamed scenery chewing convincing us of her proposed evil ways.

That just leaves Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, and his is a very interesting turn indeed. Instead of being crazed or unhinged, the post-modern matinee idol decides to get lost in the dementia, taking the audience along for the brazen, sometimes bittersweet ride. There are times when Depp, eyes encased in huge saucer-like contacts, seems positively crushed by what's happened to his homeland. Luckily, there are other moments (as when he's back designing hats for the Red Queen) where the energy we expect from the character comes careening through. Though his look is one of the art design's weaker extrapolations (does he have to come off as a combination mime and reprobate member of Cirque du Soliel?), everything the man beneath the mask does is delightful.

Of course, the real idol here is Burton, a director who's made a mint off of being misunderstood, geeky, and outré-outrageous. When you break Wolverton's script down into its individual beats, it's not long before you marvel at what the finicky filmmaker has made out of it. The opening celebration is so cold and charmless that it literally lacks color, while almost everything associated with the White Queen is equally unexceptional. This appears to be planned in advance, the better to mark the startling differences throughout the rest of the film's frenzied landscape. Elsewhere, Burton also seems set on reliving his greatest hits, familiar facets of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and even Sweeny Todd sneaking into the mix.

The result is a feast for the mind, if not necessarily the intellect. The updated Alice herself has an emotional arc drawn straight out of any frilly fantasy epic (it's all about destiny and being true to yourself, you know) and the rest of the cast does little except serve said storyline. But if you're going to turn Alice's Adventures in Wonderland into something akin to Dungeons and Dragons ala Dodgson, it would be nice if your narrative was as knotty and imaginative as the man behind the lens. Sadly, everything about the plotting here is derivative and dull. Without Burton composing the shots, this Alice would be awful. Now, it's a near masterpiece, lacking just enough focus to keep it from being a 100% complete success.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.


15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Sixteen Years Later Wayne Payne Follows Up His Debut

Waylon Payne details a journey from addiction to redemption on Blue Eyes, The Harlot, The Queer, The Pusher & Me, his first album since his 2004 debut.


Every Song on the Phoenix Foundation's 'Friend Ship' Is a Stand-Out

Friend Ship is the Phoenix Foundation's most personal work and also their most engaging since their 2010 classic, Buffalo.


Kevin Morby Gets Back to Basics on 'Sundowner'

On Sundowner, Kevin Morby sings of valleys, broken stars, pale nights, and the midwestern American sun. Most of the time, he's alone with his guitar and a haunting mellotron.


Lydia Loveless Creates Her Most Personal Album with 'Daughter'

Given the turmoil of the era, you might expect Lydia Loveless to lean into the anger, amplifying the electric guitar side of her cowpunk. Instead, she created a personal record with a full range of moods, still full of her typical wit.


Flowers for Hermes: An Interview with Performing Activist André De Shields

From creating the title role in The Wiz to winning an Emmy for Ain't Misbehavin', André De Shields reflects on his roles in more than four decades of iconic musicals, including the GRAMMY and Tony Award-winning Hadestown.


The 13 Greatest Horror Directors of All Time

In honor of Halloween, here are 13 fascinating fright mavens who've made scary movies that much more meaningful.


British Jazz and Soul Artists Interpret the Classics on '​Blue Note Re:imagined'

Blue Note Re:imagined provides an entrance for new audiences to hear what's going on in British jazz today as well as to go back to the past and enjoy old glories.


Bill Murray and Rashida Jones Add Another Shot to 'On the Rocks'

Sofia Coppola's domestic malaise comedy On the Rocks doesn't drown in its sorrows -- it simply pours another round, to which we raise our glass.


​Patrick Cowley Remade Funk and Disco on 'Some Funkettes'

Patrick Cowley's Some Funkettes sports instrumental renditions from between 1975-1977 of songs previously made popular by Donna Summer, Herbie Hancock, the Temptations, and others.


The Top 10 Definitive Breakup Albums

When you feel bombarded with overpriced consumerism disguised as love, here are ten albums that look at love's hangover.


Dustin Laurenzi's Natural Language Digs Deep Into the Jazz Quartet Format with 'A Time and a Place'

Restless tenor saxophonist Dustin Laurenzi runs his four-piece combo through some thrilling jazz excursions on a fascinating new album, A Time and a Place.


How 'Watchmen' and 'The Boys' Deconstruct American Fascism

Superhero media has a history of critiquing the dark side of power, hero worship, and vigilantism, but none have done so as radically as Watchmen and The Boys.


Floodlights' 'From a View' Is Classicist Antipodal Indie Guitar Pop

Aussie indie rockers, Floodlights' debut From a View is a very cleanly, crisply-produced and mixed collection of shambolic, do-it-yourself indie guitar music.


CF Watkins Embraces a Cool, Sophisticated Twang on 'Babygirl'

CF Watkins has pulled off the unique trick of creating an album that is imbued with the warmth of the American South as well as the urban sophistication of New York.


Helena Deland Suggests Imagination Is More Rewarding Than Reality on 'Something New'

Canadian singer-songwriter Helena Deland's first full-length release Someone New reveals her considerable creative talents.


While the Sun Shines: An Interview with Composer Joe Wong

Joe Wong, the composer behind Netflix's Russian Doll and Master of None, articulates personal grief and grappling with artistic fulfillment into a sweeping debut album.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.