Tim Burton's "Alice" Is A Bad Marriage Between Disney and Goth

We may earn a commission from links on this page.

If Alice in Wonderland is a hybrid of Disney sensibilities and Burton's dark weirdness, I'm afraid the Disney side is dominant. A 3D remake of Lewis Carroll's classic novels, Alice has a heart of darkness wrapped in a cloying exterior.

The movie, packed with whimsical effects (though nothing that takes advantage of 3D) and great acting, begins on a high note. Indeed, Alice in Wonderland is one of those tragic movies whose frame story is actually more interesting than the story itself. Our heroine has just turned 20, and has lost all her memories of visiting Wonderland as a child - though she hasn't lost her penchant for flights of fancy. ("I was imagining all the ladies dressed in suits and the gentlemen dressed in gowns!" she tells a suitor at a party, who tells her to keep her thoughts to herself.) Unfortunately, her mother has planned a very unimaginative future for her. A Lord of Bad Digestion is to propose to her, in front of dozens of high class people, and she's expected to accept gratefully.

Just as the dull-minded Lord gets on his knees, Alice catches sight of the White Rabbit, pointing urgently at his watch. She flees the proposal scene, and tumbles down the rabbit hole into her adventure. The idea of reimagining Alice as a young woman - as Syfy did in its recent miniseries - is a good one, and emphasizes the adult side of a story that was always as much for grownups as kids. Burton's reboot of Wonderland, which is known to its denizens as Underland, is likewise terrific. As Entertainment Weekly's Owen Gleiberman put it, the place looks post-apocalyptic now. Oppressed by the Red Queen, the world's magical creatures are in bondage and the psychedelic fauna seem to be covered in ash.


During our first few moments in Underland, as Burton deftly builds the world around us, you'll feel genuinely enchanted. This is Wonderland for the early twenty-first century: war-torn, dark, and full of monsters who actually bite. But the ugliness and horror evaporate quickly, leaving behind one of those saccharine stories where everybody urges the heroine to do something brave by standing around smiling encouragingly at her.

In the case of this film, the brave thing Alice must do is retrieve a vorpal sword from the Red Queen's palace and slay the deadly Jabberwock (yes, there really is a vorpal sword in Carroll's original poem, "The Jabberwocky," which appears in Through The Looking Glass). In the process she must also rescue the Mat Hatter, played weirdly with a Scottish accent by Johnny Depp. Unfortunately all the weird characters, including the Jabberwock itself, have got accents or CGI enhancements instead of personalities.


Even the Cheshire Cat, who at first is a disturbing trickster, quickly morphs into a smiley friend like those birds who help Disney's Cinderella get dressed for the ball. And the Red Queen? Don't get me started. First of all, she's a bewildering mish-mash of the Queen of Hearts (from Carroll's first Alice novel) and the Red Queen (from his second), which leads to many mixed metaphors since the Queen of Hearts is from a game of cards and the Red Queen is from a chess game.

Still, when the Red Queen first sweeps into our field of vision, screaming psychotically about somebody eating her tarts and interrogating her frog footmen, she's an awesomely bizarre creation. But she quickly becomes nothing more than the swollen-headed CGI cartoon she is. We really could have used some scenes of her actually beheading people instead of listening to her screech about it. She's as unconvincing a villain as Alice is an unconvincing hero. Plus the story is rather self-undermining, since Alice's fight with the Jabberwock is intended to unseat the Red Queen in favor of the White Queen, whose main recommendation seems to be that she has a head of the proper size. And she doesn't scream as much.


Alice in Wonderland is based mostly on Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, with a healthy dose of Through The Looking Glass too. Another major influence on the film also seems to be American McGee's videogame Alice, whose crazy, sword-wielding heroine returns to Wonderland when the rabbit comes looking for help.

If anything will dazzle you about this movie - and make no mistake, there are dazzling moments - it's going to be the idea of Alice growing up and becoming an armored warrior instead of a pretty moppet. Though her swordfight with the Jabberwock is lackluster and occasionally quite irritating, Alice's character transformation is not. Unlike the Alice of Carroll's novels, whose body grows to all sizes while her personality remains trapped in childhood, this Alice grows up by learning to kick ass.


As I said earlier, what frustrates about this film is that its frame story is so intriguing - when Alice leaves the rabbit hole we want to know what happens next. Especially when we see what she decides to do with her newly-armored self in the world of the 19th century. As the movie ends, her real adventure is about to begin. I wish we could have seen that adventure, instead of the annoying dream that preceded it.