R3view: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Director: Tim Burton(Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, Batman, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory)
Novel: Lewis Carroll
Screenplay: Linda Woolverton
Producers: Joe Roth, Jennifer Todd, Suzanne Todd, Richard D. Zanuck, Tim Burton
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter, Crispin Glover, Anne Hathaway
Additional voices: Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse, Timothy Spall
MPAA Rating: PG
Running time: 108 min

For every generation a new version of Alice in Wonderland must arise I suppose. With this newest incarnation, Tim Burton puts on a visual treat fest in which a much older Alice, now in her late teens, once again falls down the rabbit hole into a strange wonderland. Meeting several odd and zany characters, both friendly and beastly, Alice must discover her true wit and help lead the good Queen of White in defeating The Red Queen and her minions for control of Wonderland Underland.

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Here it is: more proof that 3D is a gimmicky flop pulling the shroud of deceit over the eyes of viewers. As I sat watching a visual treat of the highest order it dawned on me more than once at how delectable the sights were and how distracting it would have been had the 3D up-conversion been used on my print; forcing me to wear overpriced glasses to look at an inferior and distracting product. But enough gripe about the industry’s slant and let’s get to the praise for the 2D (as it was filmed and intended) version of the picture.

It must be admitted from the outset that I’ve never read Lewis Carroll’s original novel of the same name. I’m told it was quite dark, mysterious and even political in its overtones. I’d venture to guess however that Tim Burton’s version (one of seemingly hundreds of adaptations) manages to keep a lot of that darkness intact and if one knows what to look for, likely a lot of the political stature is there as well. One example of Alice walking across a sinister looking moat using only decapitated heads to stay afloat says a whole lot of twisted stuff all on its own I think. But in true Disney fashion these moments of darkness and drugged out macabre are easily balanced with cartoony characters, gorgeous settings and fun, if typical, action adventure.

Also admitting that I’ve never been too interested in Alice in Wonderland as a story (I’ve seen several of the aforementioned adaptations and not really any of them captured my imagination or even my attention), I have to admit walking into Burton’s vision with apathy and visions of the fairly boring and clunky Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus reeling in my head. But Burton managed to surprise me on a couple of levels. First and foremost is the imagination with which locales and characters are realized and displayed. From the moment The Red Queen’s castle appears on screen, I was hooked. The details in the optically illusive surreal imagery toys with our mind’s perspective (again, something very likely lost in the 3D version) and the cinematography around every turn is entrancing. Rightfully so, Burton takes CGI technology and uses it for what it should be for this particular venture: a surreal and dreamlike artful experience; NOT photo realism.

Now take the wonderful visuals and add to it the endless display of really fun characters and voice acting and you’ve got what is, despite a story that’s been told hundreds of times, a version of the tale that holds up beautifully and sits quite nicely (perhaps even better) next to Disney’s animated version of 1966 (considered by most to be the definitive version). This is probably Helena Bonham-Carter’s finest performances (by far the stand out of the movie) as the Red Queen and having it juxtaposed with Anne Hathaway’s Giselle-like (Enchanted) performance of The White Queen is onscreen delight. Throw in all of the great voice acting from Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Michael Sheen and Paul Whitehouse into the mix with their delightful but zany characters and it’s a seriously great time in the cinema. Hey, when nearly everyone in the film (even the talking dog) upstages Johnny Depp in your movie, you know you’ve got something special on your hands.


I went into Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland reimagining with few expectations other than some great art direction and scene-stealing caricatures from his standard cast of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. I could tell from the trailers that it wasn’t going to follow the exact story of Alice that I’m used to from Disney’s version, but not having read “Through the Looking Glass,” I’m not sure how much is based on that versus just springing from Burton’s imagination. That’s something I should really find out one of these days. The story we get, though, I quite enjoyed – the real world frame story set the stage nicely, creating both a sense of normalcy and not-belonging for Alice before she tumbles into the rabbit hole. The elements of prophecy and ongoing strife between the Red and White Queen and Alice’s place in it, should she choose to accept it, are all well-told and intriguing.

One thing I was really hoping was that Johnny Depp wouldn’t totally upstage the rest of the cast, and I’m happy to say he mostly didn’t – there were a few times when I thought he took it too over the top, but mostly Mia Wasikowska was right there holding her own in an impressive performance. Helena Bonham Carter is great as the Red Queen, too, and in fact, I’m curious to hear what people think about the contrast between the Red and White Queens. Obviously the Red Queen’s rule devastated the world, turning a lush, happy place into a barren wasteland and enslaving its people, but there was also a hint that her cruelty was a reaction against neglect and derision she’d received growing up in comparison to her perfect sister. ***SPOILER***: show content

Perhaps I’m also reacting to the difference between Bonham Carter’s strong performance and Anne Hathaway’s weaksauce one (I’d never want the Red Queen in charge, but I kinda questioned the White Queen’s efficacy as well – Alice would’ve been a better queen than either).

But that aside, I really enjoyed the interplay between who Alice was and who she could become, and the way both the prophecy and her own decisions played into that. There’s a lot of girl power in this film, and it all just flows out of the story and characters without a lot of attention being called to the feminist overtones. The one technical nitpick I had was the somewhat uneven CGI – it often looked fairly realistic (as in the backgrounds and some of the characters), but other times looked really cartoony (Tweedledum and Tweedledee). I wish the look had been more consistent. Oh, and one more thing I liked – the costuming on Alice’s dress as she changed sizes was pretty clever, if a little convenient at times.


*Mild Spoilers*

For those of you who believe this Disney-fied, Tim Burton update of Alice in Wonderland has been bereft of dark and subversive playfulness of the original Lewis Carroll story, consider the following. Alice, no longer a child but rather on the cusp of womanhood, is being forced into an arranged marriage by her mother after the death of her father precipitated the loss of his business and wealth (and therefore independence) to a fellow lord (who happens to be the father of Alice’s fiance-to-be.) At the site of the painfully arranged proposal (care of uber-shrew future mother-in-law) Alice flees the scene, leaving the question unanswered, and follows the White Rabbit down the hole into ‘Underland,’ a place she has only vague memories of as a child. The former Wonderland, no a ravaged and tumultuous place, is more-or-less an hallucinogenic cocoon for her own burgeoning willfulness which is first hinted at by Alice’s refusal to wear a corset and stockings to the engagement party. Her first significant encounter in her own ‘dream’ is with the blue caterpillar who declares that she is the “Wrong Alice” – she is simply not yet fully formed and the movie is the fantastic version of puberty (the growing and the shrinking) and growing up.

The familiar rogues gallery in Underland try to rope Alice (wrong version or not) into the local prophecy of grabbing the Vorpul sword and fulfilling their desires to be free of the petulant Red Queen’s oppression by slaying Her Majesty’s pet dragon (The Jabberwocky). So her marriage in the real world, a Victorian subservience to male dominated society, is in effect Alice being forced to (eventually) grab her sickly husband’s ‘member’ and fulfill her societal obligation. And it is thus echoed by her being forced to go after the ‘sword’ in surreal Underland. While Alice eventually does ‘grab the sword,’ it ends up being off-script (she even forms a platonic friendship with a hairy beastie that draws her first blood – “can’t we just be friends?”) from the prophecy. In the re-written Underland history, Alice succeeds on her own terms. The way she slays the Jabberwocky is by chopping off its head at the long (again, penis) neck, exposing a bleeding red (vagina) and the final exit of Underland completely (even cockily!) sure of her own independence. The battle is underlined by CGI playing cards fighting CGI chess pieces (in effect, Alice putting away childish things for adulthood) in the background.

She returns to the real world (only a scant minute or two in passing) and denounces her arranged marriage and instead deigns to becomes the executive partner to her former-future-father-in-law. Alone and in control, she strides the prow of a sailing ship, before her the open ocean of possibility (and of course, the commercial and financial subjugation of China; good luck with that A!) while the aforementioned caterpillar (now an azure butterfly) flits on her shoulder before taking flight and and pointing the way forward.

Coming around full circle after punting Burton on his keister for not conforming (er…creative differences), the Edward Scissorhand director has delivered an expensive non-conformity tale to the Mouse-House that celebrates freaks and oddballs in a sweet and positive light. Is the new Alice in Wonderland not surreal enough or too straightforward? With the bump in age of the title character, having her achieve faster and greater understanding of her own subconscious Wonderland is the reasonable approach and it works well here (besides the production design does the heavy ‘surreal lifting’ anyway.) If the original book was a representation of a young child overhearing and failing to process adult conversations, filtering the contradictions and difficulties of the adult world through paradoxical fantasy, then the new older Alice is more in control and the storytelling style reflects that. In short, is this version neutered by a studio? Hardly. Alice does the castration herself, making this actually one of the brighter kids flicks from 21st century Disney.


What ever happened to the Tim Burton I came to love? The aging goth who bent the rules and put on screen slightly twisted stories? Even the friendliest of the bunch had an air of darkness in the shadows but over the last few years. Burton seems to have lost his touch and Alice in Wonderland is proof of that. What should have been a marriage made in heaven is nothing more than an endlessly pretty film with little going for it beyond great visuals.

I can appreciate the changes in story and the aging of Alice to help in creating a character and story that is more than simply one encounter followed by another but what it really feels like is an excuse to extend the screen time of some of the secondary characters, primarily the Hatter played, rather dully, by Johnny Depp. For her part, Mia Wasikowska is quite expressive in her role though it feels she’s not on screen nearly enough, while other talents (Crispin Glover particularly) are flat. The few exceptions are the voice talent who do an admirable job and Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway as the Red and White Queens respectively. They’re both bigger than life, their performances full of bombastic expressions and dialogue and it works but alas, they too are given little to do.

Alice in Wonderland could have been a great film but as it is, it’s a dull, uninteresting piece of entertainment from a director who has, for the last few years, been suffering from a nasty case of diminishing returns. Here’s hoping Dark Shadows and Frankenweenie fare better.


I really think that Burton’s Alice deserves more than the 3.5 out of 5 that I am giving it. I deliberately stayed away from the 3D version of the movie as the idea of retrofitting a 2D movie into 3D seems pointless and I really feel that the movie is better in 2D. The sets are stunning as are the character designs (with the exception of the CGI for Crispin Glover who I thought moved in a way that didn’t look right). The story had enough twists and turns and played with the original material in such a way that it felt like something different than the previous incarnations. The reason I am giving it a 3.5 only is that my movie going experience was pretty much ruined by the woman in front of me who decided to browse the web, check her email and do various other things on her smart phone. I spent the first half of the movie quietly swearing at her under my breath up until I told her to turn it off. I plan on revisiting Alice in Wonderland before it leaves theatre as I was entertained in between the annoyances and I believe that watching it again without the constant distraction really will make me love it.


Just a smidgen shy of a ‘classic’ but pretty solid work from Team Burton and Team Disney nonetheless, Wonderland survives its 10 year ‘growing up’ in to Underland, and the cast of lovable freaks (standard in a Burton Join) is as handsome as they ever have been. The surrealism is there, but it is a little lighter and a little more emphasis on actions over words. The staffs mileage certainly varied on how endearing Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway were in their roles as Underlands competing Monarchs, but there was agreement that the ‘distinguished British actors’ role-call for Voice acting was superb. Finally, the central role played by Mia Wasikowska is satisfying work. On the whole, probably best to have a peak at this, we recommend seeing it in vibrant 2D.

Average score:



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Andrew James
Podcaster. Tech junkie. Movie lover. Also games and guitar. I dig music.