Alice in Wonderland: On-This-Day Thursday Review
Every Thursday, an older film released on the exact same day years ago will be reviewed. They can be classics, or simply popular films that happened to be released to the world on the same date.
For March 7th, we are going to have a look at Alice In Wonderland.
It’s not easy to be too difficult on Burton, because he is almost everyone’s first auteur. I remember being a child and seeing The Nightmare Before Christmas, with the memorable name “Tim Burton” plastered over the top awning of the poster. There’s something about that name that sticks when you first see it. Then, you attach the moniker to the style: high school gothic drawings that come to life, with outcasts prevailing as the lead characters, and Danny Elfman scores that flitter like butterflies nearby. Yet, Burton has never quite nailed a perfect film. Edward Scissorhands is a touching adult fairytale, that is slightly burdened by a pace that is too fast, and many problems being solved by the “it’s a story” defense. Ed Wood, Burton’s greatest achievement yet, only has one slight flaw with its bursting-through the notorious director’s creative processes (otherwise, it ticks off all of the boxes). Big Fish is an emotional roller coaster, but it might rely on its own fancy a bit too much.
Burton doesn’t really make films for cinephiles. He makes them for misfits. When you discover cinema through his works, you feel like you belong somewhere as a teenager with a chameleon-esque identity. When you discover more about films, it’s as if his works are Santa being dispelled as not the magical beings you once remembered. Having said that, Alice in Wonderland was doomed from the start. Nine years later, and Tim Burton’s most disappointing film only continues to age more poorly. At least with Mars Attacks!, the shlock is part of the fun, and with Planet of the Apes, the failed attempt was quickly forgotten about with Big Fish around the corner. With Alice, we had a mess on our hands right from the get-go.
An adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s most famous work is such a tall affair. You’re trying to make cinematic sense out of nonsense. The animated Disney rendition passes (to an extent), because it never tries to be overly poignant. It simply exists, with a short moral on Alice’s getting-older. Here, Burton and company try to make a Lord Of The Rings-like epic, where Alice is returning to Wonderland to slay the Jabberwocky. The Jabberwocky is a nonsensical poem by Carroll, and it exists as a poem to Alice in the original works. Therefore, this is already a large liberty taken, and that’s literally the barest of beginnings of explaining the plot. Also, Alice returning to Wonderland is the premise of Through the Looking Glass (the sequel novel), yet this deviation makes even less sense, now that the sequel (and even worse) film has been made. Is it implied that the animated film from decades ago is a loose first film of sorts? Why don’t we see Alice’s first time in Wonderland? Why should we even care about her trying to slay a beast in a place she is familiar with, and yet we aren’t?
Even 2018’s Christopher Robin makes a bit more sense. Similarly, we are introduced to an adult Robin that returns to the hundred acre wood. We didn’t experience this interpretation of the forest before, but we at least spend enough time with the adult Robin to know at least what he is about, and perhaps why a longing for this distant world exists. No. Alice in Wonderland expects you to be a massive Carroll fan (or Disney fan), and all of the hard work put into making Wonderland look great (and, let’s be honest, it looks spectacular) is only to make this demographic see the “live action” rendition. It’s fan service. Literally no other rewards come from this. If you are a Carroll fan, all of the inane changes will make you madder than a hatter. Alice is in our world for a very short bit, she dips into Wonderland, and shenanigans ensue.
Of course, we have to make way for irritation. The Mad Hatter (played by Johnny Depp likely as the exact turning point where he went from eccentric idol, to hearing the same joke for the umpteenth time) absolutely yearns to futterwacken once more (a dance that seems dumb in concept, yet is absolutely cringe inducing when you finally see it). The Queen of Hearts is short tempered, just because she usually is in other adaptations (Helena Bonham Carter did not deserve a CGI expanded head). The White Queen is soft spoken, yet under utilized. This film felt more like an exploitation of Burton’s usual cast of bandits, and the opportunity to squeeze in as many people as possible. These characters come and go. Cheshire Cat is resorted to a mascot darting from one side of the arena to the other. The Caterpillar is just a check mark next to the “This Film Includes Alan Rickman” box. For crying out loud, Christopher Lee has under three lines as the Jabberwocky; could you waste your star power and budgeting funds any more irresponsibly?
Alice in Wonderland exposes Burton’s biggest flaws: his ideas are brilliant in the drawing room, but they never come to full fruition. Ideas do not make a great finished product. Alice bullets through so much of its story, that we never fully appreciate the production and visual effects. We don’t care much about the story. This is a lengthy trailer for an actual epic somewhere. Also, why does Alice need to be an epic? Nothing was grand about the actual story being told anyways. The entire film is a harbinger of a war that will happen, and Alice having to lop the Jabberwocky’s head off (which, if it is foretold that Alice will actually do it, why do we care the entire time?). The original novel was a rebellion against normalcy; a shifting from the ordinary. Alice in Wonderland was made with the very notion of marketability and commercialism in mind; conventional, it shouldn’t be. This many years later, and the production just seems all the more painful just remembering.
Andreas Babiolakis has a Masters degree in Film and Photography Preservation and Collections management from Ryerson University, as well as a Bachelors degree in Cinema Studies from York University. His favourite times of year are the Criterion Collection flash sales and the annual Toronto International Film Festival.