Substance Over Style: A Review of “Alice in Wonderland”

Maybe this review is a bit skewed, as I had a horrendous theater-going experience. Not only were several teenagers (who I am certain were high) cracking “That’s What She Said” jokes after every line, in the middle I attempted to use the bathroom, and dove flat on my face in front of the entire theater (we were sitting in the front row). For half the film, my knee was in atrocious pain, and it was around that point that the film started to go downhill. Coincidence? No. This “Wonderland” is wonderless.

First, a comment about certain performances. The only aspect of the film that worried me going in was Johnny Depp. While I do enjoy his work, for the past few years he has been typecast in roles that basically require him to be loopy, zany, and wacky, Sweeney Todd being the exception that proves the rule, and even that role wasn’t exactly a straightforward dramatic one. To many, the role of the Mad Hatter might seem like the perfect fit for him. However, I was concerned that he would be strange just for the sake of being strange. And to some extent, I was right. The Hatter is quite strange, but in a way, he’s one of the more grounded characters in Wonderland. In fact, I enjoyed the character quite a bit, and I use the word character loosely in this film. Depp gives a performance which is delightfully wacky, and yet oddly down-to-earth. Helena Bonham Carter is deliciously evil as the Red Queen, but Anne Hathaway’s White Queen floats around the film as if in a trance, her hands always raised in an airy, princessy sort of way. This is possibly a Burton touch, a sort of parody of the typical Disney princess, but I’m more inclined to believe that this was one of many moments in which Burton sold out his vision to Disney. Crispin Glover is oddly restrained as the Knave, and his character seems incomplete. Of the few things that he does, none of them make any sense. In a strange sort of way, he’s the film’s most complex character, and they never have any reason why he does anything. I loved the voice acting. Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar and Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat were my personal favorites. But what about Alice herself, newcomer Mia Wasikowski? She gives the worst performance of the movie. She lazily stumbles through the beautiful CG landscapes looking incredibly bored by the proceedings. There is never any emotional urgency in her voice, which causes the audience to care less and less about what happens. Though the real faults are in Alice’s character. While at the beginning, whilst among uptight Victorian stereotypes, she stands out as imaginative and with her head in the clouds, this is negated once she arrives in Wonderland. In fact, up until the very end, she has to, for no apparent reason, struggle to believe everything around her. This is in stark contrast to the Alice that we see at the beginning of the film, and was probably added because executives think that viewers are morons, and Alice’s confusion allows other characters to explain certain things to her, and by extension, the audience.

The script is pretty awful. For every gleefully absurd moment such as the Mad Hatter making a tiny Alice even tinier, and then hiding her in a teacup, there is a scene in which the Red Queen ponders such Machiavellian philosophies as “Is it better to be feared or loved?”. This was likely done to disguise the poor plot and make people think that the film was “deep”. It fails, miserably.

I’m a big Burton fan, and throughout most of it, this is clearly a Burton film. He uses color better than any other filmmaker ever, in my opinion, and that definitely comes out here. The biggest burden on this film was the Disney corporation. While we do see touches of Burton’s trademark darkness (a bloody river full of heads, for example), Big Mouse made sure that the film was as kid friendly as they could persuade Burton to make it. Not to give anything away, but in the scene near the end where the Hatter does a bizarre hip-hop style dance, I was ready to leave the theater. That sort of thing is inexcusable.

I think my biggest problem was that the story was too straightforward. I mean, this is Alice in Wonderland we’re talking about, and all you can come up with is two feuding queens and the hero has to slay a dragon? The film basically plays as a typical fantasy story with about a billion really overt references to Alice in Wonderland. When adapting a story with such uniqueness, it is truly shameful to pick and choose various elements from it and throw them into a conventional script. Not even Tim Burton himself could save this film with his style. Because, in the end, this film is all about substance over style, when it should have been the other way around. I’m not faulting Burton for the film’s unoriginality, I just wish that he could have exerted more control over it, and perhaps turned it around. Unfortunately, I cannot recommend this film. And if the other 9 films on my most anticipated of ’10 list are of this quality, then I might have to turn in my Quality Judgement card.

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Josh Rosenfield

Josh Rosenfield is a Film Media major at the University of Rhode Island. He has been writing Popcorn Culture since 2010.

One thought on “Substance Over Style: A Review of “Alice in Wonderland””

  1. After seeing the previews the first time, I was all for it. The more I watched the trailers, though, the more I felt that Burton was just trying too hard in this one. I’m probably not going to see it, ever.

    This was a great review, though. I’m trying to learn how to better review things for my book blog. Keep up the good work! (:

    -@elizawhat

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