Three Torches (Out of Five)
We know Alice in Wonderland is a Tim Burton movie, but exactly which kind of Tim Burton movie is it?
Is it the sublime kind that uses stunning, off-kilter visuals to tell a quirky, but fully realized story, like Edward Scissorshands, Sleepy Hollow, or Beetlejuice?
Or is it the incoherent-mess kind, where Burton’s stunning trademark visuals are wasted on an indifferent or outright sloppy script, like Planet of the Apes, James and the Giant Peach, Mars Attacks!, Big Fish, or 9?
The truth is, it’s not really either.
To be sure, it’s visually fantastic. Whether it’s the smiling, levitating Cheshire Cat, Matt Lucas as Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum, or the wonderfully oversized head on the Queen of Hearts, Wonderland — or “Underland,” as it’s called here — has never looked so good.
And just like so many recent Tim Burton movies, the story is infuriatingly weak.
But weirdly, the movie is worth seeing anyway.
Here is the story: in the 19th century, 19 year-old Alice, faced with a life of unbearable convention, follows a rabbit down a rabbit hole. There she finds a magical dreamland where someone named “Alice” once visited before. Is it her? It matters, because that Alice is prophesied to slay the evil Jabberwocky.
That’s the whole story. There’s some very vague talk about how Alice needs to learn that something can be “impossible” and “real” at the same time in order to be more like her dead father, but honestly, the movie doesn’t even bother giving us the slightest reason to care about Alice or her quest.
As is typical with Burton, it’s all about the visuals.
But as I said, the movie is worth watching anyway. I think it’s because it’s such a wonderfully weird Wonderland — er, Underland — and for such an iconic place, it’s never really been so successfully visually realized before. It’s not just that everything here looks so cool; it’s that it also has a perfect visual coherence.
In short, everything fits together perfectly.
What else works? Helena Bonham Carter, who has long seemed to have been slumming in her husband Tim Burton’s movies, absolutely shines here as the Queen of Hearts. She’s hilarious, shrieking “off with their heads” at every opportunity — and the image of her over-sized head (about which she is understandably very sensitive) is fascinating in itself.
Johnny Depp, in an expanded Mad Hatter role, basically plays Edwards Scissorshands crossed with Willy Wonky. And Anne Hathoway is all hand flutters as The White Queen.
Twenty five years ago, Disney famously fired Tim Burton, because they thought his short film Frankenweenie, was too scary for kids. It’s now a cult classic, and the studio has hired Burton back for this production, which reportedly cost an astounding $250 million dollars.
They’re sure to make their money back, as the project, which has been wildly (but cleverly) hyped, is certain to be a big, big hit.
So it seems that Tim Burton and Disney are both getting their happy endings.
Does the audience? Oh, kinda.
But in a way, it’s a shame, because with visuals as fully realized as the ones in this movie, Alice in Wonderland had the potential to become almost as much of a classic as the books upon which it is based.
It isn’t — not by a long shot.