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Like many a wellborn Victorian teen, Alice has had her life planned out for her; from what she’ll wear on any given day to the man she’ll be tied to ‘til death do her part. However, with her head in the clouds and her mind firmly her own, the engineering of an advantageous marriage to a bilious, entirely unappealing lord sends the young woman running for the hills and plummeting down a rabbit hole.  The new world she discovers at the end of her drop is one that is quite impossible and fantastic, but isn’t exactly as new to Alice as she first supposes.  This Wonderland, peopled with talking rabbits and caterpillars, feisty mice and floating felines is on the verge of civil war.  A dreadful empress in red with an outsized cranium serves on the side of badness and her saintly lily-white sister, the rightful queen, is on the side of all things good and righteous.  Alice is once again in a situation that seems out of her control; whether to join the fight against the terrible Red Queen as she is told her destiny has commanded or to abstain from any involvement with any of Wonderland’s royal squabbles.  Unfortunately for Alice, her future depends on her decision as do the lives of the new, unusual friends she’s made.

Adoring as I am of films like Pee Wee’s Big Adventure {1985}, Beetlejuice {1988}, Ed Wood {1994}, Sleepy Hollow {1995} and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street {2007}, I have always admitted that director Tim Burton has serious issues with story structure.  Take the unfortunate Planet of the Apes {2001} and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory {2005} as examples of his problems keeping a narrative on the rails.  Burton’s singular aesthetics trump story every time and in the case of the majority of his chosen material it works out great and is what makes him one of the most individual filmmakers ever seen.  In what would seem the perfect world for premiere oddball auteur to inhabit, Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland provides a showcase for both some of the director’s greatest strengths and weaknesses.  In a story as baroque as Carroll’s children’s tale, a mind as similarly Byzantine as Burton’s bringing it to the screen will either result in a great chemistry of like minds or a sorry misfire.  With Alice in Wonderland, there is ample evidence of both.  Beautiful looking and as perfect a representation as anyone could hope to see in a (mostly) live-action feature, Alice in Wonderland’s issues are with its script, which is too messily tended and winds up a flat muddle.  Taking most of its cues from the 1951 Walt Disney animated adaptation and giving it both a feminist twist and his own slightly dark edge, Alice in Wonderland works in fits and starts.  Making Alice a girl hero on the verge of womanhood fighting literally to control her own destiny was a plus with me and is a perverse thumb to the nose of the Victorian mores of Alice’s time that made ladies little more than pretty property.  The message suffers a bit when played against the vapid White Queen’s aggressive, saccharine goodness that doesn’t allow her to fight her own battles and the assertive Red Queen’s innate evilness.  Also, we discover that Alice is some sort of entrepreneurial prodigy, but is thrilled to accept far less than her due for ingenuity that will gain others millions.  The film also succeeds in doing something that had been attempted several times yet never totally attained in a Burton film; they finally made Johnny Depp irretrievably ugly -- not an achievement I was looking forward to.  Ironically, having looked very different leading Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Depp’s Mad Hatter closely resembles a grotesque caricature of Gene Wilder from 1971’s Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.  His freaked-out red frizz reaches from either side of his head and out from his eyebrows underneath an enormous, curiously fashionable top hat, pale Kabuki make up, and to creep us all, uncomfortable-looking yellow sclera prising his eyes wide open. (In his armour, long black wig and a heart-shaped eye patch, the film’s implausible heartthrob is the Black Knave, played by another cinematic oddball, Crispin Glover.) The Hatter takes a good deal of screen time in a change from Carroll’s original tales; we’re given a backstory which explains why he is an unlikely leader in the rebellion against the Red Queen.  Depp shows more restraint than one might reckon playing a crazy person in a Tim Burton film, unfortunately the focus on the Hatter only makes a wanly written Alice even paler.  Resembling young Robin Wright in The Princess Bride {1987}, Mia Wasikowska is sweet and thoughtful as the unwitting legend of Underland, which the previous Alice dubbed Wonderland years before.  It’s a shame that for all the post-feminist notes in the film, Alice isn’t written with more spark.  Helena Bonham-Carter doesn’t help either in that regard, as she takes queen-sized bites out of the script as the vain, lovesick ruler who really enjoys separating her subjects from their skulls.  The Red Queen’s bulbous, globelike head provides most of the comedy in the film and the joke gets old immediately.  Running a close second in the scenery-chewing stakes is Anne Hathaway, who twirls, trills, poses and flounces as the White Queen, playing the deposed regent like Glinda the Good Witch on steroids. 

Besides the beautiful visual effects like Alice’s tumble down the rabbit hole and the hypnotic airborne twirls of the Cheshire Cat, as one would expect from a Tim Burton movie, the production values are brilliant.  Small details like Alice’s Alexander McQueen-esque big and small dresses and the Hatter’s Phillip Treacy-worthy creations are stunning.  There are glances back to Burton’s successes with the rabbit hole being placed at the bottom of the Sleepy Hollow tree, Edward Scissorhands’ topiary adorns Wonderland’s royal courts and swirling, gothic archways resembling those in The Nightmare Before Christmas lead Alice into the world she believes is a particularly vivid dream.  The abundance of CGI effects practically put the film in the animated category and at times its green-screen environs almost limit the world in the claustrophobic quality the human performances sometimes take.  On the better side of the CGI are the Red Queen’s guardsmen, a faceless, lumbering metal-slatted deck of cards and the rendering of the Jabberwocky is faithful enough to the classic illustration by artist John Tenniel while retaining Burton’s style.  Recalling the director’s bittersweet tenure as an animator for Walt Disney Studios before striking out on his own, I had to wonder if the resemblance of the Jubjub to a rabid version of Up’s loopy Amazon bird was intentional.

There are simply no heights with Alice in Wonderland; no jawdropping moments or instances of cleverness or ingenuity that would place this film amongst the top of Burton’s pantheon.  It is far more enjoyable than Burton’s last kiddie-lit adaptation, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, which was such an irritating grind I thought my eyes and ears would bleed, but it should have been much more.  Alice in Wonderland is a lovely display of Tim Burton’s amazing offbeat aesthetics which win me over every time, but sadly doesn’t make for very much of a film.



~ The Lady Miz Diva

March 5th, 2010





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