×

Alice in Wonderland

Pic has its moments of delight and bedazzlement, but it also becomes more ordinary as it goes along.

With:
Mad Hatter - Johnny Depp Alice - Mia Wasikowska Red Queen - Helena Bonham Carter White Queen - Anne Hathaway Stayne -- Knave of Hearts - Crispin Glover Tweedledee/Tweedledum - Matt Lucas Helen Kingsleigh - Lindsay Duncan Lady Ascot - Geraldine James Lord Ascot - Tim Pigott-Smith Charles Kingsleigh - Martin Csokas Hamish - Leo Bill Aunt Imogene - Frances de la Tour Margaret Kingsleigh - Jemma Powell Lowell - John Hopkins Voices:
Absolem, the Blue Caterpillar - Alan Rickman Cheshire Cat - Stephen Fry White Rabbit - Michael Sheen Bayard - Timothy Spall Dormouse - Barbara Windsor Jabberwocky - Christopher Lee Dodo Bird - Michael Gough Executioner - Jim Carter Tall Tower Faces - Imelda Staunton March Hare - Paul Whitehouse

“You’ve lost your muchness,” Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter remarks to his newly shrunken teenage friend, and much the same could be said of Tim Burton in the wake of his encounter with a Victorian-era heroine of imaginative powers even wilder than his own. Quite like what one would expect from such a match of filmmaker and material and also something less, this “Alice in Wonderland” has its moments of delight, humor and bedazzlement. But it also becomes more ordinary as it goes along, building to a generic battle climax similar to any number of others in CGI-heavy movies of the past few years. A humongous Disney promo effort and inevitable curiosity about the first post-“Avatar” 3D extravaganza will pull wondrous early B.O. numbers, although long-term forecast could become clouded by the imminent arrival of further high-profile kid-friendly features.

It all seemed like such a natural fit — Burton and Lewis Carroll, Depp as the key component in fiction’s most eccentric tea party, and 3D put at the service of a story offering unlimited visual possibilities. Not that it’s gone all wrong; not entirely. But for all its clever design, beguiling creatures and witty actors, the picture feels far more conventional than it should; it’s a Disney film illustrated by Burton, rather than a Burton film that happens to be released by Disney.

Although it draws heavily upon both Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (published in 1865) and “Through the Looking Glass” (1871), the script by Linda Woolverton (a Disney standard-bearer with a major hand in “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and “Mulan”) crucially skews the material by advancing the leading lady’s age from pre-pubescence to 19. The main upshot of the change is that this trip to Underland, as it’s referred to here, becomes Alice’s second, not first. The not-inconsiderable benefit is that enables Alice to be played by Mia Wasikowska, an actress of willowy, Gwyneth Paltrowesque beauty but, more important here, of a pale but powerful resolve that confers upon the picture any gravity it may possess.

After an over-the-rooftops cinematic entry into London that could as easily have alighted at the residence of Sweeney Todd (or, for that matter, Ebenezer Scrooge), a delirious little Alice awakens from yet another nightmare to ask her father, “Do you think I’ve gone ’round the bend?” To which he offers the encouraging, tone-setting reply, “All the best people are.”

Thirteen years later, in an amusing framing story invented by Woolverton, a pale, sulky Alice is put up for an arranged marriage by her widowed mother (the enchantingly mordant Lindsay Duncan) with the twitty son of an aristocratic family. The lavish would-be engagement party quickly and appealingly establishes Alice as an impudent contrarian with a mind of her own; when, in front of hundreds of elegant guests, she is meant to accept the fatuous lad’s proposal, she cries out, “I think I need a moment!” and promptly follows a white rabbit down a hole.

Just as, at such a transformative interlude, “The Wizard of Oz” switched from black-and-white to color, this should have marked the point when “Please Put on 3D Glasses!” flashed onscreen and everything took on an all-consuming, eye-popping look (the 3D in the garden party sequence is actually banal, even poorly judged). In fact, Alice enters a verdant, overgrown world that undeniably resembles “Avatar’s” Pandora and encounters at least one creature, a skeptical caterpillar, that actually is blue.

As things get “curiouser and curiouser,” she also meets the round, argumentative twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum; the vaporous and grinning Cheshire Cat; the manic March Hare; Depp’s Mad Hatter, with saucer eyes, Bozo-like red hair and gap teeth that bring Madonna to mind; and, inevitably, the fearsome Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who spares Alice from her favorite edict — “Off with their heads!” — because she, like all the others, needs to know if this is “the” Alice who visited so many years before.

Script arguably needed a narrative backbone of a sort not to be found in the episodic books, and Woolverton has obliged. Unfortunately, it’s one that turns “Alice” into a formulaic piece of work, which Carroll’s creation was anything but. Climactic action setpiece, with an unlikely young warrior taking on a fearsome beast while gobs of CGI soldiers clash, smacks of “The Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter,” “The Golden Compass,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and any number of other such recent ventures. Thus does “Alice” become normalized, a tilt Burton is surprisingly incapable of opposing.

A jaw-dropping coda pivots on a “visionary” character’s forthcoming voyage to open up trade with China, provoking musings about Disney’s rationale for this sort of corporate encomium to a vast young market, as well as thoughts of a never-to-be-made sequel set among 19th-century Chinese as inscrutable and combative as the population of Underland.

To be sure, the design, effects, makeup and technical work is of a high order. Other than Alice, the most memorable characters are the wonderful hunting dog Bayard and the elusive Cheshire Cat, superbly voiced by Timothy Spall and Stephen Fry, respectively.

Among thesps whose faces can be discerned, Bonham Carter authoritatively takes dudgeon to a new high as the Red Queen. Unfortunately, Anne Hathaway is miscast as her sister, the White Queen, as her white hair and black eyebrows look weird and she’s not temperamentally suited to the role’s benign superciliousness. And Depp is Depp, slip-siding among moods, accents, looks, rhythms and keys like a jazz player on his own wavelength, to disarming, if transient, effect.

Alice in Wonderland

Production: A Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release of a Walt Disney Pictures presentation of a Roth Films/Zanuck Co. production. Produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd, Joe Roth. Executive producers, Peter Tobyansen, Chris Lebenzon. Co-producers, Katterli Frauenfelder, Tom Peitzman. Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay, Linda Woolverton, based on the books "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" by Lewis Carroll.

Crew: Camera (Technicolor; Deluxe domestic prints, Technicolor international prints, 3D), Dariusz Wolski; editor, Chris Lebenzon; music, Danny Elfman; production designer, Robert Stromberg; supervising art directors, Stefan Dechant, Andrew Nicholson (U.K.); art directors, Todd Cherniawsky, Andrew L. Jones, Mike Stassi, Christina Wilson, Timothy Browning (U.K.); set designers, C. Scott Baker, Jackson Bishop, Tammy Lee, Jeff Markwith, Richard Mays, David Moreau, Anne Porter; set decorators, Karen O'Hara, Peter Young (U.K.); costume designer, Colleen Atwood; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/DTS), William B. Kaplan; sound designer, Steve Boeddeker; supervising sound editors, Boeddeker, David Evans; re-recording mixers, Michael Semanick, Tom Johnson; senior visual effects supervisor, Ken Ralston; visual effects supervisors, Sean Phillips, Carey Villegas; visual effects, Sony Pictures Imageworks; additional visual effects, Sassoon Film Design, CafeFX, Matte World Digital, In-Three; animation supervisor, David Schaub; conceptual designer, Dermot Powell; makeup designer, Valli O'Reilly; stunt coordinator, Garrett Warren; line producer (U.K.), Mary Richards; associate producer, Derek Frey; assistant director, Katterli Frauenfelder; casting, Susie Figgis. Reviewed at Disney Studios, Burbank, Feb. 23, 2010. MPAA Rating: PG. Running time: 108 MIN.

With: Mad Hatter - Johnny Depp Alice - Mia Wasikowska Red Queen - Helena Bonham Carter White Queen - Anne Hathaway Stayne -- Knave of Hearts - Crispin Glover Tweedledee/Tweedledum - Matt Lucas Helen Kingsleigh - Lindsay Duncan Lady Ascot - Geraldine James Lord Ascot - Tim Pigott-Smith Charles Kingsleigh - Martin Csokas Hamish - Leo Bill Aunt Imogene - Frances de la Tour Margaret Kingsleigh - Jemma Powell Lowell - John Hopkins Voices:
Absolem, the Blue Caterpillar - Alan Rickman Cheshire Cat - Stephen Fry White Rabbit - Michael Sheen Bayard - Timothy Spall Dormouse - Barbara Windsor Jabberwocky - Christopher Lee Dodo Bird - Michael Gough Executioner - Jim Carter Tall Tower Faces - Imelda Staunton March Hare - Paul WhitehouseRelated links:Odeon backs down, will carry 'Alice'Italian exhibitors agree 'Alice' dealBelgian theaters stage 'Alice' boycottU.K. exhib Vue to play Disney's 'Alice'Odeon threatens 'Alice' boycottCineworld to carry Disney's 'Alice''Alice' stirs more exhib ireDisney: Early 'Alice' release an 'exception'U.K. malice over 'Alice'

More Film

  • Jody Madden Replaces Craig Rodgerson as

    Jody Madden Replaces Craig Rodgerson as CEO of VFX Firm Foundry

    Jody Madden has been upped to CEO at U.K.-based VFX outfit Foundry. She steps up having been chief product officer and replaces Craig Rodgerson, who joined the company in late 2017. Foundry was bought by U.S. tech firm Roper Technologies earlier this year in a £410 million ($509 million) deal. The London-based business provides software [...]

  • The Lion King

    ‘The Lion King’ Tops Studios’ TV Ad Spending

    In this week’s edition of the Variety Movie Commercial Tracker, powered by the always-on TV ad measurement and attribution company iSpot.tv, Walt Disney Pictures claims the top spot in spending with “The Lion King.” Ads placed for the remake had an estimated media value of $5.64 million through Sunday for 1,290 national ad airings on [...]

  • Beyonce poses for photographers upon arrival

    Beyoncé Releases Music Video for 'Spirit,' Her 'Lion King' Soundtrack Contribution

    Beyoncé fans are stampeding across the web veldt to get a look at her just-released music video for “Spirit,” the original song she co-wrote and sang for the “Lion King” soundtrack. The track is also included on the companion album she executive-produced and will release Friday, “The Gift.” Clips from the computer-animated film are interspersed [...]

  • Constance Wu and Jennifer Lopez star

    Jennifer Lopez Takes Down Wall Street Crooks in New Trailer for 'Hustlers'

    According to Jennifer Lopez, basic pole dancing movements all revolve around a few foot positions. But as she tells her stripper student Constance Wu, it’s not just about the dancing. In the new trailer for “Hustlers,” Lopez and Wu swindle a number of high profile Wall Street clients in an effort to bring their white [...]

  • Writers vs Agents Packaging War WGA

    Writers Guild Leaders Warn Members About Contact With Fired Agents

    Leaders of the Writers Guild of America are warning members about being contacted by their former agents — asserting that such efforts are an attempt to undermine the WGA and its members. The missive, sent Tuesday from the WGA negotiating committee, came with the guild in a bitter three-month standoff with talent agents that appears [...]

  • Apollo 11

    Film News Roundup: 'Apollo 11' Re-Release Set for Moon Landing Anniversary

    In today’s film news roundup, Neon is re-releasing “Apollo 11”; “Sesame Street” gets moved; “Supersize Me 2” is set for Sept. 13; Will Ropp gets a “Silk Road” deal; and Apple makes a movie deal. RE-LAUNCH Neon will re-release Todd Douglas Miller’s documentary “Apollo 11” in theaters on July 20, the 50th anniversary of the [...]

  • Michael B. JordanAFI Awards Luncheon, Los

    Michael B. Jordan's 'Just Mercy' Moves to Awards Season Slot

    Michael B. Jordan’s upcoming legal drama “Just Mercy” has been shifted forward three weeks from Jan. 17 to Dec. 25 for an Oscar-qualifying theatrical release. “Just Mercy” is based on the case of Walter McMillan, an African-American death-row prisoner who was exonerated in 1993 after being convicted five years earlier for a 1986 murder in [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content