With Alice in Wonderland, it becomes clear that Tim Burton has run out of imagination sauce. He used it all up years ago and now he’s created a film that’s just a big, hollow CGI concoction his predictable scribblings of creatures and landscapes. Rather than find harmony with Lewis Carroll’s classic work, Burton takes the names, characters, and lingo, and thinks he can apply them to a better narrative. He is sorely mistaken and Alice in Wonderland is 108 minutes inside the director’s creative nadir.
Burton’s Alice is a sequel where a teenage Alice Kingsley (Mia Wasikowska) has dreams of Wonderland, but believes they were only dreams. However, her vacant stare and pale skin belie a creativity and independence that is a no-no in Victorian England. About to be married to a drip of an aristocrat, Alice sees the White Rabbit, chases after it, tumbles down the rabbit hole, and her “adventure” begins. I use the term “adventure” loosely as the majority of the film has recognizable Wonderland faces like the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) instruct Alice of where she must go and what she must do. Alice accepts all of these instructions without question because she believes she’s in a dream and nothing can hurt her. She’s a protagonist who blindly follows any mission but has hardly any investment in the mission’s success.
Alice’s return is meant to herald the end of the Red Queen’s rule and the restoration of the kingdom to The White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the rightful leader of Underland (“Wonderland” is what young Alice called the place). Other characters shepherd Alice around to accomplish various tasks so she can fulfill the destiny laid out in a prophecy scroll. The only time Alice makes an independent decision while in Underland is when she goes back to the Red Queen’s castle to rescue the Mad Hatter (even though he let himself be captured so she could get away and meet up with the White Queen).
Alice in Wonderland has a sloppy, thoughtless script and the lack of imagination on the page reveals Burton’s lack of imagination in designing his Wonderland. It’s full of his dark, whimsical designs grafted onto Carroll’s creativity, but void of any symbolism or cleverness. Burton’s creative stagnation becomes even more apparent if you see the film in 3D because it gives you an extra dimension of style over substance.
He also wastes a talented cast, most notably Mia Wasikowska. After watching her searing performance on HBO’s In Treatment, I was excited to learn that the young actress would be leading this film. After watching her performance in Alice, I wondered if they had cast a different Mia Wasikowska who looks the same but has almost none of the talent. Her line delivery is stilted, her facial expressions are dull, and her energy is almost non-existent. I’m left to wonder if any actress could have done any better with such a wisp of a character, and I hope she’ll come back with a stronger performance in a better movie.
Wasikowska’s fellow actors don’t fare much better. The film’s marketing is using Johnny Depp’s star power, but his Hatter oddly fluctuates between an effeminate Englishman with lisp to an angry Scotsman. Hathaway is barely in the movie, and Carter and Crispin Glover’s (who plays Stain, the Red Queen’s lead enforcer/sycophant) performances are hamstrung by their distracting CGI bodies.
Up through 2003, I was a big fan of Burton’s work. Yes, there were the occasional flops (Mars Attacks, the Planet of the Apes remake), but I think Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Ed Wood, and Big Fish are all fantastic. Sadly, the director’s work has continued on a steady decline ever since 2005’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. His ideas about the nature of imagination have transformed into a celebration of his own limited creative ability. Burton’s let us inside his head for over twenty years and Alice in Wonderland may be the clearest example yet that there’s nothing left in there. He’s become trapped in his comfort zone with Depp and Bonham Carter serving as avatars of Burton’s creative atrophy. Burton has an artistic style, but it’s frustratingly futile when it becomes an end unto itself.