Alice in Wonderland: Don’t drink the water

When there’s trouble in a decaying, slightly Gothic landscape where anything is possible, why wouldn’t we let Tim Burton give it a shot?

I’ll start at the end and move towards the beginning of the Tim Burton/Disney collaboration Alice in Wonderland, because it seems a very Lewis Carroll thing to do…

This movie was ruined by a dance.

My husband, who tends to disagree with me about movies in such a regular fashion that I’d swear he was doing it on purpose to keep my ego in check*, looked at me in the dark with an open-mouthed expression, making sounds like a nearly drowned man who has just been rescued and is spitting up water on the dock. I felt a thrill of harmony to hear him sputtering, as it parroted my own ugly expostulations exactly. We are in stunned agreement! The Mad Hatter’s joyful dance — something like a computer-manipulated Irish jig and nothing you would want to witness twice — brought an otherwise generally funny and original movie to a screeching halt. The fact that the body performing this miserable and awkward atrocity belonged to Tim Burton’s best leading man (and the most attractive person alive)…well, I’m not sure what to do with that information. My brain is so close to shoving this memory into a hole and forgetting it forever that I couldn’t even bring myself to Google the name of the dance itself, lest still images of the scene surface and my psyche shatters into a million pieces.

What? It’s Tim Burton! I can be as dramatic as I want!

While we’re on the subject of Johnny Depp, as I frequently am, you may have assumed, as I frequently do, that his portrayal of the Hatter will fall into the broadening category of “JD enjoys being weird, but it’s actually getting kind of old.” Indeed, Depp’s appearance in Public Enemies last year was almost shocking. After all this time in layers of flamboyant stage make up, I think I’d actually forgotten what the man looked like.** Appearances aside, the Hatter is more interesting than Depp’s Willy Wonka, and much less creepy. He fits into the film’s Burtony world quite nicely, although a sort of split personality divides half of his speech into an adorable lisping earnestness and the other half into a demented Scottish brogue that’s a little difficult to understand.

He’s not the only one causing the movie to be audibly confusing. The original Wonderland’s people, places, and events were named chiefly with puns and political references. Burton’s “Underland” takes its cues from Carroll’s famous poem “Jabberwocky,” which is made up almost entirely of nonsense words. Possibly, it was easier to describe Underland in words that mean nothing than with antique jokes no one can hope to get. There’s little political satire here, just your standard battle between good and evil.

In fact, the plot of this film is really based around the “Jabberwocky” poem itself. Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton do not attempt to retell the familiar story, with its rabbits and roses and whatnot. Instead, they place that plotline in Alice’s memory and set up the new film as a sequel. Curiouser and curiouser, though, nobody opted to change the name of the film from the original, so I was surprised that I wasn’t watching a remake. Nope, Older Alice is led back to Wonderland/Underland at a very opportune time for both her (things aren’t going so hot for Alice in her real life) and all of our familiar pals from the story (the Red Queen has taken over and she must be stopped). It’s a perfect setting for Burton, and for the most part, he shines.

The story has a lot of inconsistencies as sequels go, and even on its own, it doesn’t really hold up, but it doesn’t really matter too much. Like other visually-heavy films of recent note, Alice in Wonderland looks so pretty that you can forgive it a lot of its errors (Not that dang dance, though. Never the dance.). And unlike those other films, it’s speckled with standout performances. Both Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway (queens, red and white) deliver wickedly funny performances, but Hathaway’s exaggerated gracefulness just barely steals the show. Crispin Glover (the Knave of Hearts) is a satisfyingly rare treat, and Mia Wasikowska couldn’t be more charming as a confused heroine.

I went into this movie expecting very little. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had been such a disappointment that I wasn’t about to let myself get too excited. It could have been for that reason that I spent most of the film wondering what everyone was complaining about. Looks? Yep! Rich script? Umm, yeah, sure yeah, good enough! Lots of heart? Well, a decent amount. Gripping story? Ok, I am getting the picture.

It’s not a great, great film but it’s better than it could have been. Contrariwise, it’s worse than a film that might be better.

And that right there was going to be my opening line.

*Unsuccessful!
**SUCH a lie, my sister and I have been sharing hunted-down images probably once a week, on average, for twenty years.

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Susan Howson

Susan Howson writes all sorts of things — from marketing content to movie reviews to this very bio.

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