The Academy Awards have been handed out, The Kodak Theater has emptied, and the red carpet rolled back up for next year. What’s left to talk about? Last weekend’s movie releases, of course! Specifically, Disney’s latest venture, Alice in Wonderland.
At the close of its opening weekend, Alice grossed an estimated $116 million, replacing Avatar as the highest grossing winter release yet. Alice and Avatar have a few things in common, other than their initials. Both of these films rely heavily (or almost entirely) on CGI effects to create their environments. Both are from renowned directors (Tim Burton and James Cameron, respectively) who are known for their visual styles and their ability to tell a story through them. Burton is known for his quirkiness and whimsy, Cameron for his action and drama.
But where Cameron is clearly still creating groundbreaking, phenomenally successful movies, Burton seems to be flagging. His last few films are all indicative of his various styles: dark and morose (9, Sweeney Todd), fantastic and whimsical (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), or dark and whimsical (The Corpse Bride). Alice in Wonderland seems to be in the dark and fantastic, slightly whimsical camp. The creatures are all vividly imagined and rendered on screen, the environments either bright and vibrant, or dark and forbidding. The problem I have with Alice is that neither the environments nor the characters are engaging. I didn’t care about anyone or anything in the film.
Meet Alice (Mia Wasikowska). She’s 19, plagued by nightmares of falling down holes, strong-willed, and fiercely anti-establishment. Sounds like a good formula for a leading lady, right? Unfortunately, Ms. Wasikowska fails to be anything more than a blonde mannequin delivering a dull, wooden performance. I have not seen this young actress in anything else, so I do not know how good/bad an actress she really is, but based on this performance alone, she is close to bumping Kristen Stewart (Twilight, New Moon, Adventureland) from the top of my Least-Liked Actresses list. Close, but not quite. (Kristen, you’re still the best of the worst in my book!) Still, I found nothing to like about Alice. She spends most of her time in Wonderland convinced she is in a dream, so Mia Wasikowska sleepwalks through the majority of the movie. When the heroine doesn’t care where she is or what she’s doing, neither do I.
Oh, but there are so many quirky and whimsical characters in the land of Wonder! (Or Underland, as we learn.) The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), The Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover, playing an even thinner man*), Red Queen (Helena “I’m here because I’m sleeping with the director” Bone-him Carter), White Queen (Anne “Because I’m tired of being the princess” Hathaway), and Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), to name the more important characters. Jabberwocky has a speaking role, as well, but I’m not going to say who it is. Hearing that performer’s voice was one of the few pleasant surprises in the film, and one I’ll not spoil for you.
More often than not, the madness, courtesy of Johnny Depp (who has an inexplicable habit of bursting into Scottish accent), is just confusion/confusing, and the capriciousness is simple petulance. The Red Queen isn’t unstable and terrifying, she’s childish and annoying. Stayne, the Knave of Hearts isn’t intimidating, he’s silly and awkward. The White Queen dances from one pose to the next, tra la la, and speaks of her vows to never hurt a living creature, and then asks Alice to hurt a living creature. Hypocrite.
I was excited to hear Alan Rickman voicing Caterpillar, but realized after a few lines of dialogue that he was asleep, not unlike the movie-goer two seats down from me. Picture Alan Rickman in your mind. Not young, vibrant “I’ll cut his heart out with a spoon” Sheriff-of-Nottingham Rickman. Old, tired, Severus-Snape Rickman. Now slow him down to half that speed, and you’ll have an idea of how Caterpillar sounds. Bored, and rather annoyed that he’s in this movie.
Cheshire is…actually, he’s pretty good. Stephen Fry is one of the bright spots in the movie, and he plays Cheshire Cat well. The languorous lynx stretches, evaporates, and drifts from scene to scene, and it is slightly ironic that the most insubstantial character in the movie is the one feels the most real.
Alice’s visuals are good, but not great. The pictures painted are of madness, bleakness, whimsy, quirkiness, blah blah blah. Alice seems like it was tailor-made for Tim Burton to one day bring to life, but he fails. It doesn’t feel like Alice in Wonderland, it feels like Alice in Burtonland. That’s not to say that the set and character designs aren’t the least bit creative, but they just don’t feel real. Additionally, the CGI rendering (which is considerable) felt rough and unfinished.
Though Alice and Avatar have a few things in common, there is one huge difference. Everyone who loved Avatar unflinchingly agrees that the story is pretty awful, but they don’t care. It stands as an exception to the rule that special effects do not make the movie. Alice in Wonderland is the example of that rule.
If it seems as though I’m spending a lot of time describing the acting and the visuals, it’s because the story isn’t worth spending a lot of time on. The writers probably didn’t. Let me sum up: Alice is bored in England. Alice is bored in Wonderland. Alice is on a chess board. Alice boards a slow boat to China. The end. And in a venue perfect for a post-credits Easter egg, we got a goose egg. Really, Tim? You couldn’t give us one little last glimpse of Wonderland and some promise of a future visit? Not that I really wanted an extra scene, but there should have been one.
The story is weak. The movie is bland. The characters are odd or eccentric, without the necessary trait of being interesting. Alice was bored, and so was I. I give Alice in Wonderland only 1 Babble.
*In Charlie’s Angels (2000), Crispin Glover played a character called Thin Man.
Addendum: I feel the need to point out that my fellow screener LOVED this movie. It is currently sitting at 52% on Rotten Tomatoes, so I guess the two of us make that statistic accurate.