I saw Alice in Wonderland opening weekend, and given its crazy box office numbers, many of you have probably seen it by now as well. It may be a month later, but I figure there's still plenty of people out there wondering if they should pay what I think is now $17 in New York for 3-D tickets, so here we go.
Despite seeing the many negative reviews heading in, I hoped for the best in Alice's first half. Sure, the opening segment was almost identical to the beginning of Pirates of the Caribbean. I mean seriously. An ahead-of-her-time 19th century young British woman who doesn't want to marry a boring guy and complains about wearing corsets? Makes you wonder if they even switched out the script. But in case you were wondering, Alice is a Disney movie far more than a Tim Burton movie, and one that borrows liberally with previous Disney movies.
Still, the beginning left me hopeful largely due to Mia Wasikowska's performance as Alice. She gives the part a nice touch of spacy oddness, like Luna Lovegood-as-Disney princess. She embodies Alice's curiosity in a believable and appealing way. And when she first enters Wonderland, or Underland as it is inexplicably called here, there's a certain amount of good will for Tim Burton's visual sensibility. Based more on Lewis Carroll's Through the Looking Glass than Alice in Wonderland, the movie has a very Return to Oz vibe - dark and busted up. Unlike Charlie and the Chocolate Factory where Burton went all circus-y, here he actually delivers the dark Burton vision his fans crave.
But as soon as it becomes clear the movie has more of a plot than just following Alice through the land, the movie quickly begins to lose steam. Taking the Jabberwocky poem from Looking Glass as an inspiration, the script has some prophecy say that Alice must slay the Jabberwocky. This is said many, many times. Also, she may not be the "right" Alice. Oh, and there's an evil queen in control of the land who's only major difference from the queen in Chronicles of Narnia is that she didn't create permanent winter. And she has a big head. That's also mentioned a lot.
By the time you realize Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter is not a wacky loon but in fact a super serious rebel leader dead set on creating a revolution against Helena Bonham Carter's Queen of Hearts, Alice has been shrunk to Thumbelina size and begins to spend most of the movie in people's pockets. The curse of getting a big star like Depp is that he insists on playing a major role, so he practically becomes the main character. And at this point Depp just recycles the same "I'm crazy" act he's done in the last however many movies. It's getting old.
Alice's biggest sin though is that for a movie based on the most infamously drug-induced fantasy ever written, there's just not enough fun. Everyone's so dreary and straight-to-business, whining about the queen and talking about the resistance. Alice still has some time to wander and react to the wacky characters, but it's all rushed through to get to the "big movie plot." Which is pretty lame. Especially since by the time the White Queen and Red Queen's armies are fighting each other, it's become clear the movie has just turned into a direct Narnia rip-off. Except with a very silly talking dragon.
A lot of these problems wouldn't matter if the movie didn't take itself so seriously. But the only one in the cast bringing any levity is Carter, who has a ball with the Queen's catchphrase of "Off with their heads!" After sucking all the humor from her lines in Sweeney Todd, she's made up for it by being the sole source of it here. There's a lot of cool effects on display here, from the visual palette to, ok fine, the 3-D (even if it mostly consists of stuff jumping out at you. It's no Avatar and probably not worth the extra $4). But there's no wonder to be found in this Wonderland, and Johnny Depp dancing doesn't change that.