Tim Burton would only appear capable of making films at either end of the quality spectrum. They are either bonkers yet brilliant (Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands) or dull & uninteresting (Planet of the Apes) – unfortunately Alice in Wonderland, a film that on paper has everything going for it, falls distinctly in the later category. Perhaps the project wasn’t actually suited for Burton, perhaps he’d have been better just producing it and influencing the visual style as with The Nightmare Before Christmas.
It’s not that it’s just bad (it is), it’s more the sense of disappointment that this could have been so much more. No one seems to be having a good day with this film either in behind or in front of the camera. Burton has never really felt comfortable with action scenes – spectacle yes, action no – yet the script constantly places emphasis on them. The script is especially disappointing, we’re not expecting wonders but a modern updating of the story based upon a stronger, older heroine would appear to be tailored perfectly for Linda Woolverton’s sensibilities (her updating of Beauty & The Beast for Disney being the perfect example) except its flat in all of the wrong places.
And Danny Elfman? He really needs to find a new workbook.
Front of camera it doesn’t get any better, Depp turning in a performance that veers between camp and psychotic – yes, we get that he’s supposed to be The Mad Hatter, but it doesn’t gel. Only Bonham Carter appears to be having any fun, but it’s a one note performance all the same. Mia Wasikowska is given nothing to do other than wait for the next CGI creation to come along for her to pretend to react to.
Which brings me to the biggest failure of the film, its complete reliance on CGI. Burton has always gone down the physical set approach for past films, here it’s all jettisoned in favour of CGI, CGI and even more CGI. There is too much to focus on, nothing is distinct and it all becomes a giant, coloured splodge on the screen. The physicality bought restraint and a demented internal logic, this instead just floats on screen. Part of this may be down to the desire to be 3D (it’s painfully obvious which parts have been designed with this in mind, even in 2D), but where Coraline and Avatar used it to enhance the story, here it becomes the focus.
Burton needs to make a simple film to get this out of his system, perhaps without Depp & Co. as well (remember how good he was with Ewan McGregor in Big Fish – a different actor forced him to up his game) to put him out of his comfort zone. I still think he’s got a potential masterpiece in him, but on the strength of this it may be a long time coming.