Despite his supposed status as a off-beat, or even cult, filmmaker, Tim Burton has spent most of his career working within the studio system. While he’s presented wholly unique visions in films like from the dark, depressing Edward Scissorhands or the peppy, innocent Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure; he’s currently steeped in a multi-picture deal with Disney, and his The Nightmare Before Christmas film has likely led to billions of dollars in sales of merchandise. The only people who see Burton as a unique artistic voice anymore are middle-schoolers who don’t have exposure to anything individual or personal in art.
With all that in mind, Burton releases his vision of Alice in Wonderland this week, taking Disney’s animated classic and throwing into a computer-generated, 3-D world. It seems like a pretty obvious choice for a filmmaker into twisted-but-family-friendly films about childhood, and it will fit easily into Burton’s filmography. Unfortunately, there’s nothing interesting or endearing about the work, and it’s likely to be remembered as one of the less-interesting films in his cannon.
Burton’s Alice isn’t a remake, rather a sequel that segues easily into the original’s story. Alice is brought back to Wonderland, now the “chosen one,” the only hope to defeat the Red Queen and slay her dragon, called the Jabberwocky. (I’m glad they went with this story, because clearly there aren’t enough high-concept movies with characters referred to as “the one”. Or movies that end with the slaying of a dragon.) The catch? Alice doesn’t believe any of this is happening – she remembers her first journey to Wonderland as nothing more than a dream. As such, she thinks she’s just dreaming again, and doesn’t care that she’s being hunted by a massive, sharp-toothed beast – soon enough, she thinks, she’ll just wake up.
The problem with the idea of a passive character, though, is that if she doesn’t care what happens to her, chances are neither will the audience. This is the biggest fault in Alice in Wonderland – you never get invested in the stories or characters. Even if Alice were fully awake and aware, her character is too wispy and lackadaisical to be affecting or charismatic enough for us to care about her well-being. Indeed, sometimes her dialogue comes off as something a clever, but mostly annoying, fourteen-year-old girl might say in the hopes of sounding creative.
Though the film fundamentally fails because of this, there are certainly reasons to keep from writing it off entirely.
Visually, Burton really flourishes here. I have to admit that I’ve never been a fan of the idea of a digitally created fantasy world, but with his Wonderland Burton really knows how to make it work. He’s not interested in realistic looking backgrounds, rather Burton understands that this is a cartoon of a film and takes its art direction down that different, playful path. The chesire cat actually smiles, as wide as a crescent moon; and the castles seem to defy laws of physics. People may refer to this Alice in Wonderland as the live action version, but it’s probably more animated and fantastical than the original Disney take. And the 3-D, which feels more gimmicky than immersive in most movies, really helps add to this kind of environment.
It’s a fun, colorful place inhabited by wonderfully imaginative looking creatures. Even the humans scratch the realistic look, like the Red Queen, who has an over-sized head three times too large for her short stature. It helps that she’s played by Helena Bonham Carter, whose always been pretty solid at playing over-the-top baddies. Hearing her talk about having a good pig underneath her feet is about as good this film gets.
Burton’s always had a stronger visual presence than most, and Alice in Wonderland might be one of his most interesting accomplishments in this regard. But had Burton spent less time with his animators and more time on the script, perhaps we could have gotten a more unique story that fit and paid tribute to its odd but wonderful Wonderland. Instead, the Wonderland we get is one that’s only worth looking at, and not worth falling into.