Queen Big Head Rules All

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Oh, Tim Burton. You just have to be, well, Tim Burton. If you’ve seen any of his works then you know the director’s particular twee-goth style. He’s the guy behind Beetlejuice, Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, and, yes, the 1989 Batman as well as its sequel. Of course, along with many of his successful projects he’s also laid out some big, horrid, filmic turds, like Mars Attacks!, Sleepy Hollow, and the 2001 Planet of the Apes (I will never forgive him for that one). When he’s working on ideas he cares about, and is allowed to do his thing, it feels like the director is engaged and interested and cranks out some solid work. But when he’s doing work for hire, taking on an IP for a studio just to make money, it’s pretty clear he doesn’t engage with the work. He’s a solid director when the mood strikes but, half the time, that guy doesn’t show up for work.

2010’s Alice in Wonderland is curious because it feels like we got both Tim Burtons in a single film. Parts of the movie were weird and stylish and absolutely felt like Burton was engaged in the material, turning the world of Wonderland into his own caravan of curiosities. But then there are sections that feel rote, like the movie has to go through the motions of being a Disney film and meeting the story bounds of the Corporate Mouse House, and work-for-hire Burton shows up. I don’t know if Alice in Wonderland could have been a great movie, but the parts of it that Burton engages with are at least interesting. If only more of the movie had that same vibe.

We’re introduced to this Alice (Mia Wasikowska), a 19 year old noble girl off to a large garden party she absolutely doesn’t want to go to. There she finds out that one noble lad, Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill), is expected to ask for her hand in marriage (because they’re both from noble families, and the right age, and this is just what’s done). But when the time comes, Alice finds she can’t go through with it. She runs from the party, needing a moment to find herself… but instead finds a White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) who lures her into a hole in the ground, and down she descends into the Underland. And, curiously, Alice feels like she’s been there before, in her dreams from years and years ago.

Once she gets into Underland, having been forced to grow small from a magical drink so she could fit through a door, the leaders of the Underland resistance – the White Rabbit, the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), the Cheshire cat (Stephen Fry), the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), and Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas) – doubt she’s the right Alice. They’ve been searching for “The Alice” for years, a girl to help them fight the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and defeat the Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee), as prophesied in an ancient calendar scroll. Alice isn’t that girl, they say, and they’ll have to search for a new champion. But then the forces of the Red Queen come, chasing off the band and sending Alice off into the depths of Underland to find a way out… and maybe just find the champion she will soon become.

I didn’t absolutely hate the 2010 Alice in Wonderland, which was shocking since I’ve pretty much found every version I’ve covered on this site to be a dreadful bore, one after another. This film was light and engaging in a number of places, a fun little romp of an adventure that, at times, showed the best of what Tim Burton could do with the right material. It takes the scenes and ideas from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and crafts them into a directed adventure where Alice has to learn to become herself, to become the woman she was meant to be (both as an adult in the real world and as a champion in Underland). It makes for a far more interesting adventure than I expected from something based on Carroll’s books, that’s for sure.

With that said I did have a number of issues with the film, and the biggest is that fact that, for all its trappings, it’s not an Alice in Wonderland story (and not just because the realm is called Underland). It’s a story about a girl who magically ends up in another world. She’s led by the denizens on an adventure, collecting traveling companions along the way (more than a few who are talking animals), all before finding the magical relic she needs to defeat an evil queen and save the world, ushering a new era of peace and prosperity. Then, realizing she’s learned the lessons she needs, she heads home to enjoy her life once more. In short, Alice here goes on an adventure meant for Dorothy in The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

The thing about Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is that it’s a story of the absurd. The girl goes on weird little episodic adventures, seeing things she accepted as normal being turned on their heads. The characters in Wonderland are antagonistic to Alice because she doesn’t follow their rules (because they don’t follow hers, of course). The strongest reading of the story is that Wonderland exposes the weirdness of Victorian Era England via the adventures Alice goes on, all while leading her (and the readers) to question what they accept as normal (even if, frankly, every version of Alice’s story seems to forget to have her actually learn anything). She’s not a heroine on a quest, she’s a little girl lost.

The 2010 Alice in Wonderland doesn’t preserve that, which is both an upside and a downside. At least we have an Alice here that can learn and grow and become a more realized woman than she was when she started on her adventure. At the same time, though, this doesn’t feel like Alice’s story. The Alice here isn’t some girl with set ideas about what’s right and wrong and how to go about in polite society. This is a girl that already thinks weirdly, that has peculiar ideas and refuses to conform to society’s expectations. She’s a girl meant for Underland, a Tim Burton heroine who has to be weird for the sake of weirdness. She’s not Alice from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.

Going in, then, you have to accept that Tim Burton has done what he always does when working with an IP: he’s picked out the few pieces he liked and then thrown away the rest. It’s the same thing he did with Batman (which everyone seemed to like) and Batman Returns (which many did not), Planet of the Apes as well (which everyone seems to hate), and then Dark Shadows (which is a very weird movie that doesn’t resemble the source material at all). The films he makes based on existing IP barely have anything to do with what came before. He has to Tim Burton it, getting his scissorhands all over the material. Sometimes that works, often it doesn’t.

That is as long as Burton stays engaged, and that leads to the second big issue with this film: Burton seems to grow bored with the movie two acts in. Right around the point where (spoilers) Alice escapes from the castle of the Red Queen, having retrieved the Vorpal Sword so she can defeat the Jabberwocky, and taken it to the castle of our Good Witch stand-in, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the film loses all its momentum. It goes from a series of wild adventures with Alice to a bunch of characters standing around, waiting for the next big set-piece to happen. Sure, there were scenes of characters talking at each other before, but there was chaos and confusion and weirdness keeping it all alive. This last act is so rote, so basic, so expected that the film loses what life it had. And it builds to a CGI-infused action climax that would be more suited to a Marvel Cinematic UniverseWhen it first began in 2008 with a little film called Iron Man no one suspected the empire that would follow. Superhero movies in the past, especially those not featuring either Batman or Superman, were usually terrible. And yet, Iron Man would lead to a long series of successful films, launching the most successful cinema brand in history: the Marvel Cinematic Universe. film. It just feels tired, sad, and wrong.

I recognize I am not the standard audience for this film. I don’t much like Tim Burton’s movies (again, I will never forgive him for Planet of the Apes) and I’ve realized I don’t care for the story of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. Putting the two together feels like it would lead to the worst possible film (at least in my book) which is why I avoided watching it until just recently for this review. To my surprise I actually did enjoy it, at least for two acts of the movie. But then it all falls apart in the end and I’m left with a movie that feels like the worst mix of Alice in Wonderland, Oz, and Tim Burton. If the film could have kept its lively and weird mix of ideas for the third act, bringing it all home, it might just have been a winning movie. Not a perfect Alice in Wonderland (as it’s barely related to that idea) but a fun movie.

This is not that film. This is a tragic film that falls apart right when it should have gotten even better. I recognize people liked this film, to the tune of over $1 Billion at the Box Office, and I’m not going to say people were wrong for enjoying it if that was their thing. I lament the film that could have been, the one that kept Burton engaged throughout. I would have been interested in seeing that movie because, honestly, I enjoyed the parts of the film that actually delivered on that promise. It’s just it pity that wasn’t the entire film.