Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

Two friends and I took an evening this week to go see Alice in Wonderland at the cinema.  We saw it in 2D — the 3D glasses hurt my nose and the movement usually makes me feel nauseous, so I generally prefer 2D versions of things — and as a result we had the place almost entirely to ourselves, which was quite pleasant.  There were definitely places where the 2D animation seemed choppy and not-quite-right, so if you’re a person who enjoys the “3D experience” you may prefer seeing it that way, but it was still visually stunning without anything popping out of the screen (let’s face it: it’s Burton, ergo it’s visually stunning).

I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect, story-wise, as I’d heard some very mixed reviews.  Many people were very disappointed that the story didn’t tackle Carroll’s original subject matter, and instead chose to go with a pseudo-sequel that reads a little bit like fan-fiction.  Having seen it myself, though, I’m actually quite glad that they decided to re-interpret the material:  capturing all of the many elements involved in the books would have been impossible, and I suspect that any attempt to do so would have left me feeling as betrayed as I did after seeing The Fellowship of the Ring (don’t even get me started on my Tolkien-spinning-in-his-grave rant).  This movie instead makes no bones about the fact that it’s a new interpretation, and I’m glad to see that kind of admission of the difference between the written word and the silver screen.

That’s not to say that I’m totally pleased with what they decided to do with the story.  Despite the all-star cast, I was disappointed with the interpretations of many of the characters — especially Anne Hathaway’s White Queen, Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, and Alan Rickman’s Caterpillar.  I also felt that the movie was missing Carroll’s wonderful and fanciful wordplay:  with the Mad Hatter, the Caterpillar and the Dormouse playing such important roles, there really should have been more of it.  The plot was overly simplistic, and the ending extremely contrived.

Let’s begin with Alice herself.  Her costumes were wonderful (I especially loved the dress she wore while visiting the Red Queen’s court), and I can see what Mia Wasikowska was trying to accomplish by playing Alice as a very subdued, quiet individual.  I don’t think that she achieved what she could have, though — whether it be bad directing or merely her own inexperience as a lead actress in film, I’m not sure (although I suspect a combination of the two).  She was clearly trying to go for a portrayal of Alice as an inexperienced, naive, day-dreamy girl brought up in a repressive Victorian society; a girl who knows that there is something wrong with the world she lives in, but she’s just not quite sure how to express that.  It works all right through the beginning of the film, when she’s still within the “real world”, but once she’s down in Wonderland/Underland it takes her far too long to even begin breaking out of that shell.  The shock of finding herself in a place that she thought was only a dream should come sooner and harder, enabling her to go through the more extreme emotions required for proper character growth.

Next issue: the Mad Hatter.  Johnny Depp misses the boat completely with this one, taking a character that is supposed to be witty, wacky and generally off-the-wall, and instead making him into an object of general pathos (even the other characters seem to feel extremely sorry for him).  The Hatter is far too aware of his own insanity — isn’t it said that the truly insane don’t know they’re insane? — and it turns him into a sad, serious victim.  This is a character that needs to be played with joy, and somewhere along the way Depp missed that note.  I won’t even get into the fact that his Hatter was really just a combination of Willy Wonka, Edward Scissorhands and Jack Sparrow, with the occasional touch of Sweeney Todd thrown in there for good measure; it’s an obvious point that has been made by many other reviewers before me.  It just added to the general feeling that Depp didn’t really quite “get” the Hatter.

The White Queen is probably my least favourite character of them all.  The deposed monarch, beloved by her subjects and yet powerless to stop her maniacal sister, needed to be gracious, benevolent and kind:  the sort of ruler who would be adored and idolized.  Instead she’s a ditzy blonde Wicked Witch of the West, plotting against her elder sibling and mixing up disgusting potions, obsessed so much with death that she can’t reach out to help the living.  She’s obviously the beautiful, spoiled, favourite baby sister, and I honestly felt a lot of sympathy for the Red Queen (someone who shouldn’t be sympathetic at all), largely because the White Queen is such a total bitch.  It was very jarring, and I was kind of secretly hoping that Christopher Lee’s Jabberwocky would come back to life just long enough to bite the White Queen’s head off at the very end of the battle.

As I mentioned above, the Red Queen is not a character who should be drawing sympathy … and yet like Depp’s Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen manages to be more pathetic than anything else.  The Red Queen is still one of my favourite characters in the movie, but there were many times when I stopped enjoying her nuttiness and instead felt sorry for her (perhaps as a less-pretty-and-popular older sister I was well-primed for such feelings, but all the same they shouldn’t have been there).  The Red Queen of the book is capricious, cruel, and pretty much terrifying.  Bonham Carter’s Red Queen manages it through most of the movie, but it falls apart towards the end when the audience starts to realize that Stayne, the Knave of Hearts, does not love her, and that the White Queen, her sister, is mocking and mean towards her (and it is suggested that the White Queen was their parents’ favourite, which really does in many ways justify the Red Queen’s hatred for her younger sibling).

The Caterpillar, too, was in many ways a disappointment.  Alan Rickman was a wonderful choice as the vocal actor, but the character was made far too serious.  Instead of being a wise-but-unintelligible mystic, he’s a prophet and leader of the people (they all run to him for advice upon Alice’s arrival, which seems very strange indeed).  He hardly frustrates Alice at all, and by the end is actually answering direct questions with direct answers!  He doesn’t speak in riddles and poetry, and it’s very disappointing.

Moving away from characters, now, and on to the plot.  I enjoyed the addition of elements from Jabberwocky (a poem that I absolutely adore).  However, I felt that it was very heavy-handed.  The audience is force-fed this idea of a “prophecy” from almost the moment Alice arrives in Wonderland/Underland, and it’s incredibly obvious that despite the objections of several characters (including Alice herself), this “prophecy” of the Jabberwocky is indeed going to come to pass.  I would have liked to see a lot more subtlety, here, as that would have made the climactic scene all the more exciting (as it was, it was a beautiful scene, and Christopher Lee made a lovely Jabberwocky, but you knew all along how it was going to end).  The story is lacking the many strange cul-de-sacs and turnarounds that defined Carroll’s work; it’s a very straightforward, point-A-to-point-B sort of tale, childish in its simplicity.  It really could have used a few more tea parties and strange encounters, and a lot less moody moping by many of the characters.

To end this review on a good note, however:  Christopher Lee as the Jabberwocky was absolutely brilliant, and Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat was another wonderful choice (I wish he’d had more scenes).  The Bandersnatch is adorable, and I very much want one as a pet.  Tweedles Dee and Dum were also very enjoyable, and the March Hare is one of the only characters who achieved the proper level of absurdity and insanity.  Overall I actually had a very good time at this movie, and considered it well worth the price of admission.  And as I mentioned at the beginning of this review, visually stunning.  Somebody needs to introduce Burton to the world of being a designer, instead of a director, because his focus on the visual elements is just so wonderful … but unfortunately, things like acting and plot tend to suffer when your brain is so consumed with making it look amazing.

Oh, and to answer the riddle?  A raven is like a writing desk because they both have inky quills.  There are a few other answers out there, but I find that this one is the best.

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