Directed by Tim Burton
Written by Linda Woolverton
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Stephen Fry, Helena Bonham Carter
Alice in Wonderland is a truly inexplicable, baffling, painful film to watch. I don’t know what anyone involved in the film was thinking in making it. Did they want to honor the vision from the late Lewis Carroll? Did they want to honor the 1951 animated film? Or did they simply expect, callously if correctly, that if they threw a bunch of CGI against a wall, we’d all show up to watch in awe? There were, I imagine, people who hoped their experience would be that way. Instead, anyone watching this for the first time would likely start out hopeful, devolve into confusion, and then end angry at what they just sat through. Every single decision in this film is a misstep, every line of dialogue forgettable or painful, every musical cue familiar and overdone, every action sequence boring to watch as it must have been boring to create on a computer.
More than anything else, I don’t totally get where the negative reputation for this movie has sprung from. Oh, Alice in Wonderland deserves whatever bile you care to toss at it, a movie so convinced that it’s breaking the mold despite taking the lazy route at every possible juncture. But this movie made a billion dollars worldwide and won two Academy Awards while being nominated for a third. Certainly, neither of these facts automatically validates a film as being of high quality, yet it would be logical to assume that such a film has a fanbase, potentially a very large one. Essentially, you might think that my visceral, vitriolic reaction is in the minority. Yet it’s Mike—who literally used the word “love” in reference to his opinion, and did so unironically—who’s among a few defenders, and all but acknowledged it on the podcast.
I wonder if some people went to see this movie when it opened in 2010 just because they wanted to see…something. Alice in Wonderland opened only three months after Avatar stormed into theaters, impressing almost everyone with at least its visual wonders. Here was a movie that earned to be seen on the big screen. Its story is hackneyed and familiar, its characters weakly developed, its performances mostly unimpressive, but boy howdy, was Pandora something to see. The 3D was well implemented not because director James Cameron threw out all sorts of cheap tricks at us, but because it was used to immerse us in a fantasy world that, at the same time, felt real. We can scoff at those people who voiced their depression at never being able to travel to this fictional place, but Pandora did, on the silver screen, legitimately look real. Thus, it became a phenomenally popular film for months at the box office.
But eventually, everyone saw Avatar at least the one time, so they needed to see something else, because they had to get out of the house and do something. And hey, look! A movie starring Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, and it’s directed by Tim Burton! And it’s based on one of the most famous stories in the modern Western world? And it’s from Disney? And it’s in 3D? Will wonders never cease? In this movie’s visualization of Wonderland, which is called Underland because this movie is an assassin of magic and dreams, all those wonders are dead on arrival. What people may have responded to here was both the call of the familiar and the potential for something equally immersive and dazzling. Burton, Depp, Carter, and the rest definitely paid off on the familiar. All we get here is predictable, boring, bland, bloated garbage.
The designs are not only garish and unpleasant to look at, but they’re all very unsurprising, in the way that Tim Burton’s career has become rapidly unsurprising. A man who was once able to marry a mainstream sensibility with a quirky attitude is now no longer leading the herd, just a member at the back of the pack. Is it surprising that Tim Burton would direct a movie version of Dark Shadows, a vampire soap opera, and that it would star Depp and Carter? Is it surprising that Burton would remake Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and that it would star Depp and Carter? Is it surprising that Burton would direct a movie musical of Sweeney Todd, and that it would star…well, you know who? Tim Burton either no longer has the capacity to surprise us, or he’s just decided to be lazy. Either option is depressing, as are movies like this.
Perhaps there is no better microcosmic example of what is so patently wrong about Alice in Wonderland than one of the most gruesome, offensive, painful moments in recent movie history. I speak of the moment when Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, after Alice has slain the Jabberwocky on the Frabjous Day and thus vanquished the miniature Red Queen and placed her sister, the White Queen back in power, dances something called…shudder…the Futterwacken. Now, that’s one hell of a sentence to unload, so let’s rewind a bit. Yes, this Alice in Wonderland is a sequel of sorts, as Alice is now 19 years old, returning to Wonderland (I’m calling it that, because Underland can go screw) because apparently it is written that only she, with a specific weapon, can kill the Jabberwocky and restore peace in the land. Why is Alice prophesied to kill this beast? Why that sword? Why the Frabjous Day? Because otherwise the script would have to be rewritten. There is a prophecy here only because Hollywood presumes that’s what we want out of our big-budget epics now: characters who are forced into heroism, a la something akin to the world of Middle-Earth or Hogwarts. And Alice has to do so on the Frabjous Day because, oh, aren’t we clever in crafting our story.
So the entire film leads up to Alice being assertive in ways we may not be familiar with if all we know of her is…well, the way Alice is written as a character in Carroll’s text, as well as in her famous representation in the Disney animated film. Alice isn’t a wimp, she’s not a coward, but she’s a drip. She’s essentially the worst kind of audience surrogate, someone who functions as one of us, just walking around a strange place with oddballs, letting them weirdly bounce off of her. In this movie, the other characters treat Alice as an important figure, one who has “lost [her] muchness,” which, outside of the faux-intelligent dialogue, makes no goddamn sense because Alice does not have muchness. She’s just…there. What’s more, the prophecy all of the Wonderland characters refer to basically plots out exactly what Alice will do when she arrives as an adult, not just that she’ll slay the Jabberwocky. When she decides to go her own way in meeting the Red Queen, we’re told she’s moving off the path! Except not really, because the path was always going to diverge, which totally makes sense until you think about it.
Once Alice defeats this digitized excrescence, the day has been won. The Red Queen is screwed! Her Stretch Armstrong-like henchman, played by Crispin Glover, is shackled to her permanently! And then…the Futterwacken. How do I describe what the Futterwacken looks like to someone who has, mercifully, not been subjected to its unique form of torture? I cannot—or, rather, I do not want to—do justice to the actual dance. Depp didn’t actually perform it, but was doubled by an illusionary dancer, to whom I only suggest that you omit this from your CV. What I find more infuriating and maddening than the dance itself is the reaction from the other characters, who are all delighted at the Mad Hatter’s Terpsichorean explosion. Watching this moment, I felt finally as if I had achieved a fictional being, as if I was now a character in a mainstream movie.
Think of, say, something like Funny People, the foundation of which is a prickly professional friendship between a famous comedian/movie star and his ambitious but well-meaning assistant. Adam Sandler, here, parodies his own legend, as someone who started out as a young, edgy comic but after working in Hollywood, diluted his own brand and sense of humor to make a quick buck. Seth Rogen, as his newest assistant, looks to Sandler’s character as an icon, a legend worthy of aspiring to, even in spite of all of the embarrassing movies he’s made that served to make him look a like a fool, such as MerMan, Astro-Not, and Dog’s Best Friend. We’re treated to a couple of clips of these fake films in Funny People, humorous snippets of movies that are only funny because of how outrageously terrible they look. The characters in these movies-within-the-movie act idiotic, just enough that we can take comfort in the fact that they’re not real, only the product of Judd Apatow’s imagination.
When I watch the Futterwacken, I feel like Seth Rogen in Funny People, in that I feel as if I am watching a scene from a movie that is so irretrievably bad that it can’t actually be real. The pain permeating my soul as Johnny Depp’s legs and arms wobble and spin as if they’re putty, as Mia Wasikowska, Matt Lucas, and the voice of Stephen Fry look on in forced delight, is infinite and unwanted. I am still unable to comprehend how this scene ever came to fruition. It is set against a dull brown backdrop, the color of victory closer to the color of cat vomit smeared on a greenscreen by someone using a paintbrush with his mouth. And the dance itself is unspeakably soulless, both because the choreography is so messy and unremarkable, an echo of a whirling dervish, and because the character who is stepping out on the chessboard dance floor isn’t even doing the dancing. We are meant to be charmed by the Futterwacken, by its executor, and by its audience, but there is no way to find such a noxious, nauseating display pleasing to any of the senses.
Alice in Wonderland is a calculated effort to make money, all the more bothersome because of how damn successful it was. 3D technology was cheaply, quickly added onto a 2D universe, and when Burton and producer Richard Zanuck laughed off the idea that doing so was antithetical to all that 3D can offer, James Cameron publicly criticized them. (I have my problems with Cameron’s films, but at least this time, I admired his honesty. Not so much when Titanic got a 3D upconversion.) Disney wanted to make money off of this film, and if it happened to be enjoyable, well, you get lucky sometimes. This movie is a jumbled mess, a mélange of opportunistic and uncreative ideas that hew predictably to its director’s well-known, Hot Topic style of filmmaking. Its Futterwacken scene encapsulates all of the film’s problems, stitching in an unnecessary mythology to a world that bucks against any such severity, drowning our line of sight with unrealistic CGI, and attempting to graft character development where none is required.
And I’m fairly certain this is the worst movie we’ve discussed on the show so far. What makes Alice in Wonderland worse than, say, Mars Needs Moms, an equally terrible pile of CGI goo? Both were ridiculously expensive, both were from big-name directors, both were garbage. And then there are all the maddening Herbie movies, those films that sent me off the deep end. But this movie makes me mad, partly because of how damn successful it became. If this movie did not inspire a merchandising flood, perhaps I’d be…well, not kinder to the film. I may not have been as mad. This is a film so profoundly wrongheaded, so thoroughly uninvolving, and worse yet, it is bored. Not boring, though it’s that, too. What this movie is, is bored with itself, so bored with its mission that it lies there inert. There is nothing more enervating than a movie that doesn’t bother to try, especially if that film has been given an excess of cash to work with. The bigger the movie is, the worse it is when that film doesn’t try. And Alice in Wonderland is as big and bad as they come.