Alice in Wonderland Tim Burton Style

Yeah, I saw this movie. Because I just couldn’t help myself. Actually, I ended up liking it more than I feared. I was never actually bored, nor was I seriously pissed off, so, yay!

Oddly, or maybe not so oddly, I feel the movie it most resembles is Labyrinth, without the David Bowie. (And hence without the sexual awakening theme.) Johnny Depp could have been a Bowie stand-in, but his Mad Hatter character — though surprisingly compelling — is resolutely non-sexual. I suspect it will do better in the short term than Labyrinth,  but fail to have the more lasting cultural impact.

This movie is aimed straight like an arrow to the heart of my inner 10-year-old-girl. The 14-year-old-boy wanted it to be creepier and the 22-year-old-hipster of indeterminate gender wanted it to be smarter. But the 10YOG was just agog at the kickass visual design and entranced with the coolness of Alice herself. I think the movie stands or falls based on how involved you get with Alice, and I really liked her. I wanted to be her.

And she looks sooooo cuute! In her Jabberwock-slaying armor. And so much like the Tenniel illustration! It almost negated my annoyance at their reliance on the "nonsensical prophecy-type-thing driving the plot in an otherwise inexplicable direction" and other hackneyed fantasy tropes. But that was negated again because they kept calling the monster "Jabberwocky." JABBERWOCKY IS THE NAME OF THE POEM! THE MONSTER IS THE JABBERWOCK! 


Another thing that kind of bugged me, is that I felt they pulled back from a few implicit points. For example, Helena Bonham Carter plays the Queen of Hearts/Red Queen as a delightful and hilarious amoral monster with a giant head. Her affection for oversized things is developed in a fairly entertaining manner, and provides cover for a a few otherwise implausible plot developments. And then her sister, the White Queen, the "good" one, is played as being a little daft. But not quite daft enough to provide a true balance to her sister’s hard-headed tyranny. Also, she is simply pretty, in her fluttery pallid way, without having any outsized parts or other deformities. It feels like the wrong kind of cheating. Oh, yes, here we go again, good people are pretty and bad people are freaks.In this respect, Depps’ freakish Hatter is the chief antidote. 

The whole underland/Wonderland thing ended up being less excruciating than I feared. It only comes up briefly near the end of the movie. And the decision to make Alice 19 instead of 6 ends up working for a practical reason: six-year-olds are not often terribly accomplished in the acting craft. An adult actor is able to portray an Alice who ends up feeling, in personality, fairly close to the Alice of the books. 

And about the books? I am a big Alice nerd. How does it play with Alice nerds?

The movie ends up feeling — well, oddly, the fantasy rules are more like Oz than like the Alice books. The Alice books obeyed pure, unadulterated, kind of horrifying dream logic.  This movie superimposes a more standard fantasy plot on top of the craziness and ends up dumping most dream logic. It does have  fun with some of the conceits, like Alice’s changing size, and I ended up digging the Cheshire Cat. But the climactic battle and all that, it ends up seeming very familiar. 

I think there’s a missed opportunity here, to make a truly classic, groundbreaking film. Something that could have merged dream logic and fantasy epic logic without destroying the dream logic quite as thoroughly. Something that would have impressed  the inner teenage boy and the hipster just as much as the slack-jawed ten-year-old. Something where Johnny Depp could have symbolically ushered future "tweens" into sexual adulthood  the way  David Bowie has been doing.

As it is, I merely enjoyed it.

Note: I saw it in 3D at The Neptune. While I love The Neptune (my high school home for Rocky Horror) I actually think I would have enjoyed it more in 2D. But maybe that’s just me. I don’t normally wear glasses unless they’re sunglasses, so I kept being distracted by the glasses in my peripheral vision. I would think, "why am I wearing my sunglasses? Here, I’ll take them off," and then remember. Duh.


  1. Damn, but you’re review is a lot more intelligent then mine. I have to admit it does seem like a missed opportunity, but didn’t pick up on it because Disney was railroading the plot to Safetyville, disregarding all other stopping ponits.

  2. Also, did the White Queen strike you as having some form of OCD, the way she held herself and how she and her castle were so white and clean?

    1. Author

      Yeah, I think she was intended to be a bit nutty.

      And what I really would have liked was to see Alice react to that more, to have a “hey, you’re supposed to be the savior of this land, what’s wrong with this place?”

  3. One of the questions I’m curious about is why were so many of us skeptical about this movie? (I know I was the moment I saw Johnny Depp’s clown face.) What’s Tim Burton been doing wrong lately?
    I still want to see it, and will probably have the same reaction as you.

    1. Author

      Ever since Planet of the Apes I’m a bit worried every time Burton does something too mainstream and big budget, with McDonald’s tie-ins and the like.

      Apes was the only one I actually hated (and boy did I hate-hate-hate it), but Charlie and the Chocolate Factory ended up feeling really unnecessary. I didn’t hate it but I just sat there going, “why bother?”

      I was expecting a reaction a bit like that.

      Also, mixed reviews. And, yeah, the clown face. The clown face was simply trying too hard. Without the clown face I would have been really looking forward to Depp playing the Mad Hatter.

      I was also highly skeptical of the fact that they made Alice so much older and had obviously superimposed a very different, very standard fantasy type of story on top of the books.

      Also I was leery of the fact that Disney was really owning it as a Disney film. It could mean simply that they learned their lesson after The Nightmare Before Christmas, but it could also mean that they Disney-ified it excessively.

      1. Yeah, Apes really did mark the downfall. I didn’t hate it, but it was a “why bother?” movie. I guess the answer for him was because he really, really loved Planet of the Apes, and I suppose that’s part of the reason it sucked. Maybe we need to tell him that the reason we love his stuff is because it took us to places we’d never imagined before, and well…we’ve been here before.

  4. Thanks for this. I’ve been very, very dubious about this movie for many reasons, and it’s good to see a review of it from a perspective that shares a lot with mine. The idea of turning the Alice stories into an epic fantasy just seemed stupid to me on the face of it, but I do tend to like Burton’s production design (except not as much after Sleepy Hollow, except for Sweeney Todd). Maybe I would enjoy it as visual spectacle. Maybe if I went in with really low expectations …

    But really, is LOTR going to have the same pernicious effect on movies that it had on books? How soon before we get The Warlord of Oz?

    1. Author

      I don’t know, I think it actually feels more like Avatar than like LOTR. With a little Buffy thrown in — it’s not as smart or satisfying as Buffy, but the very transparent female-empowerment theme is reminiscent.

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