Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland isn’t either of those things. The story isn’t that of Lewis Carroll, but a kind of pseudo sequel that takes place years later. Alice is twenty years old and is facing an uncertain future, most pressing of which is an unwanted marriage proposal. Running from her troubles, she tumbles down the rabbit hole once again and encounters some of the same situations and most of the characters from the original story, but is tasked with slaying a dragon called the Jabberwocky. It feels like the story is being tugged in two directions; at once trying to remain faithful to the book while not repeating the story we’re all familiar with.
As a fan of The Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, and Sleepy Hollow, I was looking forward to seeing the world of Alice in Wonderland through Burton’s distorted lens. The possibilities seem endless. What ended up on screen is surprisingly generic and could almost be attributed to any director. Tim Burton’s style can be picked out in precious few details (most obviously the Red Queen’s card-like knights). Which is not to say the creature and world designs are bad – the Cheshire Cat looks fantastic – they just don’t have Burton’s stamp on them, which would have been so much more interesting to see.
Unlike Avatar, which largely avoided mixing human actors with their CG counterparts, Alice is constantly surrounded by them. Perhaps because of this, or the inherent nature of the creatures themselves, they stand out as wholly unrealistic cartoons, even when they’re meant to be scary. Stars like Johnny Depp (the Mad Hatter) don’t escape computer alteration, which works wonderfully in the case of Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and Helena Bonham Carter’s Queen, but not much at all for Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts. What does work extremely well are the virtual sets, which marry to the live actors successfully and are brimming with incredible details, and as Alice shrinks and grows she meshes seamlessly. The film is being shown in 3D, and I would suggest you see it in 3D if you plan to go because it does add to the experience.
In the end its universal recognition may be its biggest downfall; having been adapted dozens of times before, it may simply be impossible to recapture the wonder that the story and characters once held. Had Burton radically redesigned the creatures and settings, like an illustrator giving the story his own treatment, it would have had a much better chance at it. While not a bad movie by any means, it’s not the re-imagining one would expect given the director’s reputation. Instead, it’s a by the numbers affair that seems to fall squarely in line with that other Disney fantasy spectacular Chronicles of Narnia.
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