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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

Little wonder in ‘Wonderland’: Quirk for quirk’s sake?

Published: March 12, 2010
Section: Arts, Etc.

The experience of watching “Alice in Wonderland,” the newest film from zany director Tim Burton, in 3-D was like falling down a rabbit hole and being bored by the fall. Sure, the situation itself is odd enough, but there are no significant surprises. My attitude may be a result of overly high expectations and my over-preparedness to have my warm, fuzzy associations with this story from my childhood perverted, by the eerie, creepy qualities that Burton’s previous work possessed. (See “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”)

Alas, it seems that Burton is getting soft in his old age. The plot, which follows a teenaged Alice on her second return to a Wonderland now ruled by the Red Queen with cruelty, naturally lends itself to a visually exciting journey. However, the visuals focus on presenting eye-popping colors and disproportionate objects. While this was entertaining to watch, it left the viewer waiting for the true Tim Burton quality to exert itself, which it never did. The thought of 3-D technology at Burton’s hands inspires much more creative images than what actually transpired in the film. Burton adopts an almost blasé attitude towards 3-D and seemingly forgets about it soon into the movie. With the exception of perhaps a knocked over object in the rabbit hole that swings towards the camera, the viewer has little reason to remember or appreciate that the movie is presented in 3-D.

Given the caliber of Burton’s long career, I expected jolting twists and scenes that piqued the audience’s curiosity and perhaps made them slightly uncomfortable, something like first watching “Edward’s Scissorhands.” Though I never thought I would say this about Burton’s work, the movie seemed almost formulaic. His standard duo of Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are both present as the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen respectively, joined by Anne Hathaway as the White Queen, Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar and Crispin Glover as Stayne, the Knave of Hearts. Sandwiched among these distinguished actors, Australian newcomer Mia Wasikowska plays the title character.

While this cast is certainly a force to be reckoned with, the centering of the film around Johnny Depp and his innate penchant for quirkiness is a little too been there, done that. With the exception of a noticeable difference in accents and swagger, it’s hard to tell the difference between the Mad Hatter and the charming and notorious Captain Jack Sparrow he played in the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films. Given the many familiar faces from Burton’s previous films, Wasikowska is a breath of fresh air in the role of Alice. She strikes a nice contrast to the range of wacky characters, as she is the one sane person with whom the audience can actually relate. Her performance comes across as genuine and does not attempt to compete with any of the quirky characters for attention on-screen.

Though “Alice in Wonderland” is worth the two hours in terms of its entertainment value, it fails to meet the expectations of what a Tim Burton version of the story could be like. Surprisingly, I left the theater wishing that the movie had been more traumatizing and posed a greater challenge to the Disney version I remembered from my childhood. Perhaps Burton needs to go to Wonderland himself in order to rediscover his own edgy quirkiness that had led to such raised expectations for “Alice.”