Alice in Wonderland is the latest in a long line of movies and TV shows based on Lewis Carroll’s books. There probably have been over 100 of them, and generally they have not been very successful, either critically or commercially. Still, people keep trying.
I think the problem, or at least part of the problem, is that a successful movie needs a strong story, and that is not to be found in the original source material. Both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass are accounts of dreams. One scene follows another with no real logic or continuity. Eventually there is some sort of climax, at which point the protagonist wakes up.
What makes the books enjoyable are things that are not terribly cinematic: word-play, logic games, political and social satire. (What was probably the most delightful part for the original audience was the wicked parodies of the inane moralistic poems that Victorian children were required to memorize and recite. These produce mostly puzzlement today, since the original poems are long forgotten.)
Tim Burton’s latest move version is doing pretty well at the box office. Partly this is because it is visually outstanding, a colorful though rather creepy treat for the eyes.
Partly it is because he has totally rewritten it, taking the original characters and putting them in a story of sorts.
In this version Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is 19 years old and betrothed to a twit. She is troubled by a recurring nightmare about falling down a rabbit hole and meeting strange creatures. (Actually this really happened to her when she was 6, so she was the heroine of the original books.)
So she falls down the rabbit hole again, meets the familiar characters and is soon caught up in the struggle to overthrow the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and restore the good White Queen (Anne Hathaway, who actually comes off as pretty creepy and disturbing–certainly not the sort of person I would want to see in charge.)
This is your basic coming-of-age adventure story, a tale that has been told a thousand times before, and usually better. In the right hands it can still be effective, but in this case it just didn’t work for me.
The amazing visual effects seem to detract from the story rather than help it, making it hard to believe in the characters or care about them. Alice is pretty much a cipher. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is the best-developed character, but still more creepy than likable.
The whole thing has a rather cartoonish look, which might be fine if we were talking about a hand-drawn cartoon by a skilled animator. What we have here is more like a typical soulless computer-generated cartoon.
We have reached the point where just about anything can be done with computer-generated special effects. The problem is that when these dominate the movie the acting and storytelling tend to suffer.