Have you ever heard this apocryphal story? NASA spent millions and millions of dollars to develop a pen that would work in space. The Russians simply gave their cosmonauts a pencil.
That came to mind watching Tim Burton’s CGI cornucopia of Alice in Wonderland, in which no pixel was spared in creating the dream world. If you’re going to spend nine jillion dollars on a movie, is there some reason you can’t afford a real dog? I mean really, do you have to fake the dog? Was it too hard to work with the conditions of the canine actors union?
And so you should know they spare no expense to create the Wonderland of Alice. And still the movie never really takes us down the rabbithole. It lacks the bite of surprise. And surprise is necessary element if you are creating an unnecessary sequel.
Alice (Mia Wasikowska) isn’t a young girl. She’s a teenager on the brink of an arranged Victorian marriage. The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter)shouts “off with his head” with a comedy sketch glee that doesn’t endear. The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) dances madly. The Cheshire Cat grins. Because that’s what Cheshire Cats do. They grin. They’re very good at grinning.
The characters might be stamped Lewis Carroll. At least I think so. I don’t really remember my children stories. I was only a kid. I wasn’t taking notes. I do know the look, the plot, the structure and the effects are standard Hollywood. I do remember Hollywood. That I see every week. That might get by, if the film had any of the trademark Burton originality. This film is all visuals and no vision.
That’s the thing about Tim Burton – his outrageous creativity always seems to be in a life or death struggle with the faint whiff of dull rot that seems to underlie his films. He peddles distraction. When distraction isn’t distracting, it’s noticeable.
Depp’s Hatter is two buck teeth and a pair of crazy eyes in search of a character. That means that he has more depth than Alice, who is a rather polite bore. Her big thing is growing tall and growing small. Because she is not a young child, there isn’t much wonder to Wonderland. Nor is there much connection to her story.
But really, who needs to connect to the person or the story when we have 3-D? Even that is not quite what it could be. By the time of this writing, I had already forgotten that it had been in 3-D. Alice suffers greatly from the extraordinary three-dimensional detail of Avatar. It seems like a step backward. It misses the wow factor, and that is the only possible reason to see the movie.
Alice in Wonderland isn’t the flop that it has been rumored to be. It doesn’t take the necessary risks to be something so interesting. It’s something quite less, a film rooted in the mediocrity of dull competence. That’s what Hollywood cash can buy these days.