Revisiting the Reviled — Johnny Depp and Tim Burton Fell Down the Rabbit Hole of Self-Parody With ‘Alice in Wonderland’

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Every week with Revisiting the Reviled, Sean looks at a film that was meant to appeal to geeks and failed, often miserably.

The careers of Tim Burton and Johnny Depp are intrinsically tied. The two ascended the staircase of Hollywood royalty practically hand in hand. Working with Burton, Depp was able to shed the bad boy teen idol image that plagued him following his years on 21 Jump Street. Meanwhile, Burton found a leading man that understood his fantastical visions and affection for eccentric oddballs. Two of their collaborations – Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood – remain among the finest work that either have achieved. As they ascended together, the two stumbled down that very same staircase together into the depths of self-parody. Starting with Sleepy Hollow, which isn’t a horrible film, the two set out on a series of remakes and retreads with diminishing returns. Seemingly the only question that would surround a Depp-Burton film would be the size of the hat that Depp would don. It wasn’t a shock to anyone that Depp would the Mad Hatter in Burton’s adaptation of Alice in Wonderland for Disney. What would shock everyone is that Alice in Wonderland would be the biggest hit of Tim Burton’s career, though five years later, nobody has much of anything positive to say about it, let alone simply remember it.

Early 2010 was a different time. Donald Trump was just an asshole on television, and not a potential Republican nominee for President (though he’s still an asshole). Avatar was dominating the global box office, and it was given a healthy boost by the surcharges for 3D. As studios scrambled to post-convert their blockbusters into underwhelming 3D, there were few films ready to fill the demand for the burgeoning technology. Enter Alice in Wonderland. The film opened just about three months following the opening of Avatar and drew large crowds of audiences wanting to see more eye-popping spectacle fly right at them. Amazingly, Alice in Wonderland is, at the time of this writing, the 21st highest grossing movie of all-time worldwide. The only answer to its success, as it is not a good movie, is its fortuitous timing in coming when 3D was in demand, not just a tired gimmick that most audiences greet with scorn.

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In adapting parts of its story from Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton turned a story of limitless wonder and imagination into rather straightforward affair, employing the trite Chosen One narrative, where Alice is destined to bring peace to Underland, and concluding events with the requisite final action sequence. Of course, one can’t help but suspect that Alice has been transformed into a 19-year-old in this particular adaptation for the purposes of sexualizing her character, though I wouldn’t say that the film is explicit about such things.

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The story of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland has Alice, played by the reliable Mia Wasikowska, is a young woman about to be proposed to by an upper class gentlemen for whom she feels no affection. As he pops the question in front of hundreds of guests at his massive estate, Alice is distracted by the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen). Distracted, Alice chases the White Rabbit down the rabbit hole and into Underland. In Underland, Alice becomes acquainted with Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), twin half-wits given an extra-creepy look due to some dodgy CGI, before she ends up encountering the Mad Hatter (Depp), a crazed-looking man that speaks in a manner that suggests he’s never far from an appearance on a sex offenders’ registry. The Mad Hatter used to live an idyllic life with the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), but their happy days were laid waste by the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), the evil henchmen of the even more evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), the ruthless ruler of Underland. Soon it is revealed, though it was never well-hidden from the audience, that Alice had visited Underland in the past, and is prophesized to destroy the Jabberwock, a powerful dragon that is the not-so-secret weapon of the Red Queen. But will Alice find the strength to overcome the powerful Jabberwock? If you think that’s ever in doubt, you, sir, or ma’am, are a moron.

Under most circumstance, one wouldn’t be wrong for thinking that a version of Alice in Wonderland directed by Tim Burton would be a visually lush film, flourishing with wild sights to offset any narrative deficiencies. But that’s not the case here. For the most part, the artistry of Alice in Wonderland was crafted in a computer, though that’s not to discount some interesting costume and makeup work on the characters. But CGI dominates practically every frame to the point where seeing two people photographed in the same shot is a complete rarity. Perhaps the closest cinematic relatives to Alice in Wonderland are the Star Wars prequels, where the concept of actual sets were mostly abandoned in favor of CGI backdrops. Films like these are why people gripe about CGI in the movies – the effects work is act the forefront, not dressing to enhance something already photographed. There’s also the simple problem that a person photographed and set against a synthesized backdrop will never be entirely convincing to the human eye because a computer cannot entirely replicate the lighting that was used in the photographic process – it’s why these scenes age so horribly. For all intents and purposes, Alice in Wonderland is an animated film sparsely populated with real life elements.

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For a film that is intended to be full of eye-popping visuals, Alice in Wonderland is astoundingly flat. It’s still confounding that this film grossed over a billion dollars worldwide. But the secret of its success isn’t a mystery. It had a gimmick with the most fortunate timing, a brief moment in the sun before fading from the collective consciousness. Both Johnny Depp and Tim Burton have fallen so far deep into that rabbit hole that it seems as if they’ll never return to our good graces. If only there were some magical elixir to bring them back.

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