Film review – Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Alice (Mia Wasikowska)

The first thing you need to know about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is that despite its title implying that it is a new adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s much-loved 19th century novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, it is in fact a sequel. In Burton’s film Alice is now a 19-year-old girl who has forgotten about her childhood journey into Underland (she misheard it as ‘Wonderland’) and once more takes a trip down the rabbit-hole after ducking out on an engagement proposal that has been carefully arranged for her. Having now returned to the magical world that she thought was something she dreamt, Alice is given the mission of saving the Underland inhabitants from the tyrannical rule of the Red Queen. Such a film really should have instead be called something like Return to Wonderland or Wonderland III: Wonder Harder.

The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp)

The main problem with Burton’s film is that there is too much story when there should have been very little. While Carroll’s original novels and most other adaptations were absurdist, fragmented stories with Alice encountering one strange situation after another, Burton’s film introduces the majority of the characters within the first 10 minutes of Alice arriving in Underland. Burton has assumed, maybe correctly, that characters such as the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and Tweedledee and Tweedledum are iconic enough to not warrant separate introductions but the joy of Lewis’s novels is Alice’s progression from one character to another.

Burton’s film resembles fan-fiction where Alice, with the help of her Underland friends, is sent on a quest that involves finding her inner strength. The result feels like a mash up of The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings, which may have been OK if it didn’t feel so out of synch with the original spirit of Carroll’s novels.

Australian actor Mia Wasikowska does a decent job at embodying Burton’s classic outsider/loner persona in the character of Alice. However, despite the film depicting her imagination and freewill as being under threat by the social conventions of Victorian society, by fulfilling a pre-ordained in Underland she is simply playing yet another role that she didn’t choose herself.

The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter)

Johnny Depp is enjoyable as always but on complete autopilot as The Mad Hatter flickering between the manic, dark and vulnerable states that he has perfected from working with Burton for so long. Likewise, Burton’s other regular performer (and wife) Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen simply feels like a lesser version of Queen ‘Queenie’ Elizabeth I from Blackadder II.

Nevertheless, to dismiss Burton’s Alice in Wonderland altogether would do a considerable disservice to the remarkable visual achievements that makes such a film still worth seeing on the big screen despite all its faults. The moment when Alice does fall down the rabbit-hole and then emerge into Underland is glorious with Danny Elfman’s distinct score resonating on the soundtrack and Burton’s surreal gothic sensibility in full force, combining the aesthetics that audiences have come to love from films such as Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Big Fish. The narrative may be forced and uninteresting but the combination of costuming, art direction, production design and cinematography compensate. You’re not going to lose yourself in the story or the characters but visually Alice in Wonderland is a series of moving artworks that are a joy to gaze upon despite lacking any depth, even in 3D.

Read Cinema Autopsy’s profile of director Tim Burton.

© Thomas Caldwell, 2010

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  1. Hey, Thomas.

    Two questions:

    1) How much screentime does Alan Rickman have as the Caterpillar?

    2) I’ve heard that the Cheshire Cat has a main role in the film. Is this true? Did you like Stephen Fry’s voice work?

    Oh, and there’s something in the script that I was afraid Disney would make Burton remove: Alice has to cross a moat of severed heads to reach the palace of the Red Queen. Is this still in the movie?

  2. Hi Matt

    Alan Rickman’s Caterpillar character is completely CGIed (although it does look like him) so really it’s just his voice that’s in the film. He gets two or three good scenes from memory and is certainly one of the important secondary characters.

    The Cheshire Cat (also created by CGIs) gets a bit more screen-time and Stephen Fry’s voice work is wonderful.

    I didn’t know that Disney had put pressure on Burton to remove the heads in the moat that Alice crosses over but they are certainly there in the final film and look fantastic.


  3. Thomas,

    Well, it’s not a *fact* that Disney pressured Burton, but I know that they were trying to make the film family-friendly by keeping it in PG territory and I feared that the severed heads would be too much. I’m glad to hear that they were not removed from the final version of the film.


  4. Hi Matt

    Thanks for that clarification and I clearly jumped to conclusions from reading your original comment too quickly before replying.

    I actually think Burton has successfully managed to make a family-friendly film despite nice macabre touches like the heads, which look more like stone rather than flesh and blood.


  5. Thomas,

    Don’t worry about it. I know that Burton has had to contend with studio pressure before, so I was curious to see if his more macabre touches were compromised by any desire of Disney to make a more family-friendly product.

    ***CINEMA AUTOPSY EDIT – Spoiler warning***

    Something that reviews have mentioned, with one even claiming that it “ruined the movie for them”, is the Mad Hatter’s “Futterwacken” dance of joy near the end, presumably after Alice has slain the Jabberwock. Since you never mention the dance, I assumed that it didn’t bother you to such an extent, but…is it *really* that hard to watch? If that’s the case, then I hope it doesn’t last for more than a few seconds.

  6. ***Spoiler warning***

    I had held off on mentioned the “Futterwacken” dance because it is a bit of a spoiler but since it has been brought up and mentioned elsewhere then I can confirm that it is an excruciating awful moment that at least is mercifully short. However, it does detract from the film as a whole and is one the reasons I didn’t give it 3½ stars out of 5 instead of just the 3 that I eventually settled on. I really don’t know what Burton was thinking by including it and it seems completely out of character for him.

  7. FYI here’s an intriguing snippet out of an email a friend sent me about Mad Hatters:

    “RE the Mad Hatter’s ‘ghastly event’, the whole point of the ‘mad’ hatter is that hat-makers went mad because they constantly inhaled chemicals in unventilated areas. Hence the term. They were basically chroming until they fried their brains.”

    Curious, eh?

  8. Luke,

    That’s where Depp’s inspiration came from: the mercury poisoning that would infect hatters. He wanted the character to look poisoned on the outside, as if he was constantly suffering from the mercury.



    Seriously? The Futterwacken was so awful that it took away half of a star? I’m intrigued, because nearly every review has commented on how ill-advised this scene was…what is the issue, exactly? Is it badly choreographed? Supposedly CGI was used, so was that the issue? Put simply, what’s the general look of how Depp’s Hatter dances for those few seconds? Hopefully no cheesy music is used…

  9. I just finished the books before I saw the movie [5 minutes before, to be exact], and I’m not as mad about it actually having a plot as I thought I would be. I really liked the fact that a poem from the books was used for the plot. I also loved the Cheshire Cat :D As for the Futterwacken, I thought it was funny, and a good touch for those who don’t really look in to movies they watch, but I suppose it *did* detract from the overall movie. I just can’t wait until a high quality clip of it surfaces on the internet so I can make it into a signature xD

  10. Matt – the Futterwacken was not the sole reason I took off half a star but it did significantly contribute to the feeling, which had been steadily growing in me, that despite its initial promise I was watching an average film.

    Ben – I’m not too sure what you are trying to say but I can assure you that I pay as much attention to my emotional response to a film as I do to my more detached analytical perspective (what I assume you mean by “looking into movies”). The Futterwacken was simply a cringe-inducing moment for me and there’s nothing more profound to it than that. As you acknowledge yourself, it does detract from the overall film.

  11. My family and I LOVED the futterwacken dance! So spontaneous and fun! The whole movie was very well done! We can’t wait to get it on DVD!

  12. slighlty dissapointed by the film and then also rather liked it. i had expected darker and clever film because its a Tim Burton film and so was dissapointed. however, as an all round good fun family film i really enjoyed it and i felt the silly dance fit in with my expectations for the second type of film.
    but as with other recent films with Johnny depp in (Pirates of the carribean etc), his absence would have made this film a very uninteresting one. Helen BC was not at her best and i felt that the other big names were just sort of passing through not giving it their all

    ps – johnny depp in the forest reciting the jabberwocky verse was brilliant and easily the best part of the film for me

  13. I don’t understand why you didn’t like the futterwacken. I have never read the books but I thought it was an amusing and fun part to the movie. What makes you dislike it?

  14. I have to agree with the Futterwacken’s cringe-inducing properties. It’s bothered me right from the moment I saw it. I found it to be a cheap attempt at being fun, and cute, at the expense of maintaining the otherwise continuous setting of the period.

    Not only is it out of setting, but as this article’s author Thomas Caldwell states in his reply, it ‘s also out of character. As a Scot, I could see The Hatter dancing a jig to bagpipes and even see the other characters join him in such a celebratory Futterwacken. This would have kept continuity of story, and character. But instead, they opted for a cute, fun, spontaneous, FAIL.

  15. Exactly what Daren said. Cheap, pointless, and out of sync with the rest of the film to the point of being jarring.

  16. It seems that the overall consensus, here and elsewhere, is that the Futterwacken dance was a dud moment. I actually liked the way the film set up the promise of The Hatter doing the dance so I was especially disappointed when the actual moment was so lame. As Darren said, a jig to bagpipes or something else distinctively Scottish would have been a lot more fun and keeping in character.

    Meanwhile – isn’t it weird how we’ve all focused on this one rather small and minor moment? It goes to show just how much a film is the sum of all its parts and how dramatically one moment can stand out.

  17. you know, I don’t get you people. that movie was wonderful! I could follow the story just fine, and the futterwacken was a funny, conclusive part! It didn’t follow the story of the book. well. then what??? it took inspirations from other movies, good! Nothing is born from nothing, and i don’t think the author of the book mind-he is kind of dead, you know. Tim burton, Johnny deep and all the other actors made a wonderful job, al you criticism doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.

  18. As a devout reader of the books, I was very pleased with the movie…just rented it today. Many parts actually equalled what it has looked like in my imagination for the past years. I just about CHOKED on the Futterwacken though. I had been waiting intently for Hatter to dance, fully expecting music that would suit the era and a full out jig and then cheesy psuedo hip-hop elevator music filled my ears and my eyes bugged out of my head. I wanted to think of it as whimsical but it just was so out of place with everything that had just come before. Thankfully, the next scenes cleansed my visual palette. One misfire in a great movie overall!

  19. As a teacher of literature, I loved this film. I agree that it is a spin off from the original 19th century books, but it has ever so much more depth than it is given credit for here. One can apply both a feminist and a Freudian reading to the movie and write a lengthy thesis. I will only touch on it lightly here. The Red and White Queens are obviously two sides of the feminine personality: the overbearing, big-headed Id side, and the overly sweet, gentle, Superego side respectively. Alice is always too MUCH or not MUCHY enough – and always the wrong Alice. It is not until she embraces her masculine side and dons her armor to fight the Jabberwocky that she is able to blend the two warring sides of feminity into a healthy Ego and take her place in the world without overbearing cruelty or cloying sweetness. I am more fascinated with the plot line, theme, and symbolism to worry too much about the acting. I strongly suspect that Depp was thrilled to do this film as a didactic piece of literature for his daughter. I think it was absolutely the best thing I’ve seen in ages. Hurrah for the writer(s) as well as the actors – WELL DONE!

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