Walt Disney once famously said, “I hope we never lose sight of one thing. That it all started with a mouse.” While that’s a great quote, truth be told it all started with The Alice Comedies, the Disney clan’s first commercially successful foray into the world of animation. Walt Disney (and the relatively unsung Ub Iwerks) cranked out 57 of these shorts between 1923 and 1927. The shorts were, for their time, technological marvels as they fluidly mixed animation and live-action. So Disney has been making Alice in Wonderland movies for going on 100 years. Their most recent version, Alice in Wonderland, is helmed by former Disney animator Tim Burton. The film is a sequel of sorts to the original tale. Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now 19 and only vaguely recalls her original adventures in Wonderland. In fact, she thinks they were all a dream. Alice is on the verge of a forced engagement to man she has no interest in. Bristling at her situation and the staid rituals of the Victorian Era, she flees her own engagement party and stumbles upon the long forgotten rabbit hole that leads to Wonderland.
Lewis Caroll, author of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and and its sequel Through the Looking-Glass, was a master of nonsense (or, if you prefer, the more literary term [is] portmanteau). This has always made his work extremely difficult to adapt. In fact, after 100 years of cinema, there still isn’t a definitive film version of the “Alice” story. Tim Burton is an inspired choice as director. He has always excelled at creating darkly quirky, slightly off kilter yet endearing worlds such as The Nightmare Before Christmas, Corpse Bride, Beetle Juice and Edward Scissorhands. (Conversation starter: Would Hot Topic exist in a world where Tim Burton does not? Discuss.) Burton and Caroll feel like something akin to kindred spirits. You would think if anyone could bring the world of Caroll the big screen it would be Burton.
You would be wrong.
Burton’s Wonderland, while a visual treat, is chaotic mess. Upon arrival Alice quickly learns that Wonderland is in disarray; a dilapidated, rundown world subjected to the homicidal whims of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). For a movie with the word “wonder” in the title, there is decidedly little of it. Wonderland is a bleak dystopia crumbling around our heroine’s head. As she attempts to navigate this world with the…um, help (sure, let’s go with “help”) of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the story devolves into a rudderless collection of scenes that offer nothing other than ever-increasing eccentricity. She is tasked with killing the Jaberwocky in order to destroy the Red Queen because…um, well…she just is, ok? None of it makes much sense; and not a “literary/Lewis Carolly” kind of a way, but in a “what the hell is going on” kind of way. The whole thing plays like the fever dream of a detox-ing opium addict. Ironically, for all of Alice in Wonderland’s freneticism it’s remarkably tedious. The film is full of color, movement and action but none of it amounts to much of anything.