**/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Mia Wasikowska
screenplay by Linda Woolverton
directed by Tim Burton
by Walter Chaw A diary of missed opportunities but not the disaster it could have been, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland reminds a great deal of Walter Murch's Return to Oz in that both are closer in spirit to the respective dark of their inspirations while still falling tantalizingly shy of the beguiling murk of their headwaters. (In terms of adaptations, No Country for Old Men holds the gold standard for cinema that understands its source well enough to use it in its own sentence.) It'll be compared of course to the Disney animated classic that mistook Lewis Carroll's misanthropy-soaked surrealism for whimsy--a comparison Burton tries to sidestep by incorporating more elements (the Bandersnatch, the Jabberwocky, the Jub-Jub Bird, snickersnack) from the largely-ignored second book, Alice Through the Looking Glass, but one that'll hound a film featuring plucked-out eyeballs and a castle moat traversed by skipping across severed heads.
It's not the Sleepy Hollowgrand guignol that disappoints, however, but the timid, proto-feminist script by Disney's house writer Linda Woolverton (of Beauty and the Beast fame), which seeks to cast a nineteen-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska, destined for superstardom) as a captain of industry triumphing over her preordained role as the meek wife of a foppish lord (Leo Bill). It's a mistake that Dennis Potter's screenplay for the far superior Carroll revision Dreamchild prevented by realizing that Alice is more effective as stained archetype than as relic or anachronism. Without Woolverton's penis envy, I have to believe that Burton, with no other girl-child hero in his repertoire (unless one counts The Corpse Bride, who, at the least, has a far more honourable end), would have made his Alice a collection of father issues and dangerous tics--a loner, a weirdo, a romantic instead of this Joan of Arc, leading the army of the White Queen (a wondrous Anne Hathaway) into battle in armour and one-two, one-two the vorpal blade and through and through. The last thing a Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland should be is kowtowing to a political line. When it isn't--as in every moment The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) is onscreen--it's a revelation. When it is, it's quite astonishingly ordinary.
Alice, see, is a distaff Col. Kilgore who absolutely belongs in her multifoliate state of dementia. Proof is that she's able to communicate effectively in her Ionesco-vian way with mock turtles and March Hares, caterpillars and Cheshire Cats--to navigate the rather perverse straits of her pubescence using dream logic. Burton, then, would seem the perfect fit for this material, yet though it makes a lot of mention of dreams, Alice in Wonderland feels hamstrung in that it's hard to see any of this as reflecting, like so many of the director's past worlds have, richer, more delightful malfunctions in our hero (or heroine, as it were). Consider, too, that the entire time spent in Wonderland (suggestively renamed "Underland," but then nothing's made of that, either) is a process of actualization for a Victorian lady who refuses to wear corsets and wants to marry out of love--but only after she's had a career. It's stupid, basically, disappointingly stupid and shallow, exactly the kind of plotline a child or a dinosaur feminist would impose on a twisted fable told to a child by a stuttering, (probably) pedophilic deacon of the Anglican Church who happened to have a marvellous fantasy life through which to work out his frustrations and hostilities. Left with a less adulterated Carroll, the Burton of Sweeney Todd, Sleepy Hollow, and Batman Returns--the one who's demonstrated proficiency with fairytale images, confidence with themes of abandonment and madness, and a gratifying comfort with remorseless violence--might've made something of real, enduring horror and substance. Saddle Burton with Woolverton's pap, and that horror can only exist at the margins.
Alice, as we open, flees prearranged marriage and falls down the rabbit hole, where she encounters a Wonderland, devastated by war and privation, anxiously awaiting the return of their distaff prodigal. Alas, Alice doesn't believe that she's the "right" Alice until she gains a heart, courage, and a brain with the help of her tin men, the Tweedle twins (Matt Lucas); her lion, the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), functioning in this film much like Narnia's heroic musketeer Reepicheep; and her scarecrow, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp, in his seventh collaboration with Burton), whom she'll miss most of all. (Although the character bears the mark of Depp's delight with uglification (the most prevalent since Warren Beatty's), he's ultimately as conventional as Alice.) There's a Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee) to slay, a Knave (Crispin Glover) to evade, and a caterpillar (Alan Rickman) to obey--all of it breaking down, lamentably, to this parable of how Alice must find the balls to chart her own path through the patriarchy of her Victorian wood to become a real, bona fide, 1960s-era bra-burner.
Ignore the narrative and Alice in Wonderland is brilliant. Even in lamentable 3-D, there are indisputable tingles whenever Burton allows his penchant for expressionism the full flower of his imagination and a limitless, Disney budget. This Wonderland is far more successful than Burton's Chocolate Factory--there's a sense of real expansiveness to it, and distinct environments populated with impossible creations. Armies of red playing cards at war with white chess-piece-helmeted soldiers remind in a good way of certain scenes from Krull, while a court composed of subjects doing their best to affect deformity is another fulsome area left unexamined and Wasikowska wielding sword astride frumious bandersnatch in full-galumph strikes me as exactly the correct purpose for all this technology to be brought to bear. Indeed, the movie is possibly just gorgeous enough to forgive its softness and facile populism. But as much as I wish I could, I can't.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Buena Vista brings Alice in Wonderland to Blu-ray in a technically flawless 1.78:1, 1080p rendering. The picture's bookends were shot on film, the bulk in HD (using Sony's HDCAM, to be precise), but the transfer is consistently well-defined. I will say that the movie's soft-contrast look doesn't always lend itself to a dynamic presentation, especially the more a kind of brownish magenta comes to dominate the palette and take the place of black. The most demo-worthy scenes are those set inside the Red Queen's palace, which reward scrutiny in their complex interplay of patterns and comparatively rich colours. A robust, dizzyingly active 5.1 DTS-HD MA track helps smooth over any bumpy aesthetic transitions; it has considerably more depth than the image, truth be told. Two makings-of, both comprised of several micro-featurettes that can be played individually or collectively, constitute the bonus features. "Wonderland Characters" (28 mins. in toto, HD) has a few highlights, chiefly a side-by-side view of Johnny Depp's and Tim Burton's conceptual sketches for The Mad Hatter--their uncanny similarity proving either the symbiosis of these long-time collaborators or that there are only so many ways to draw the character. We learn that the guy who doubles for Depp when the Hatter does the Futterwacken was discovered on YouTube, that Helena Bonham Carter thought she would finally get a Tim Burton movie off until he cast her late in the game, and that the production used greenscreen up the Wasikowska.
"Greenscreen seeps into your brain," Crispin Glover laments in "Making Wonderland" (19 mins. in toto, HD), a piece that fails to adequately explain why his Knave's armour had to be all-CG, necessitating that Glover perform the entire film in a green leotard on stilts. I liked Mia Wasikowska's observation that the role of Alice is deceptively light on stunts, because all those things that sound so simple--like the Hatter putting Alice in his pocket--in fact required her to wear a harness and scale oversized props. Meanwhile, Danny Elfman's little bit on the score made me appreciate the music a lot more than when I first heard it. A batch of promos for Disney Movie Rewards, James and the Giant Peach, Beauty and the Beast, Fantasia, Fantasia 2000, and Disney Parks rounds out the platter, while trailers for The Sorcerer's Apprentice and Tinkerbell and the Great Fairy Rescue cue up on startup along with a Pinocchio tie-in anti-smoking PSA. (Presumably they had to include one because of the fucking caterpillar.) The so-called 3-disc set contains a BD, retail DVD, and Digital Copy of Alice in Wonderland. Originally published: June 14, 2010.