The most important thing for anyone to know going into Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland (2010) is that the story in question is not Alice in Wonderland. Oh sure, many of the characters are the same – Tweedledum and Tweedledee are there, as is the Blue Caterpillar, White Rabbit, Dormouse, March Hare, Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, and many others. There is also an Alice, but much of the film discusses whether or not the Alice herein is in fact the right Alice, the same Alice who visited Underland (not Wonderland) so many years before. In short, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is less a remake or reimagining and much more a sequel.
This comment is not a nitpick or a criticism or a complaint, it is a simple fact and certainly an important one for people to know in case they sit down to watch the release expecting to see a new telling of the old tale. As a sequel, it does draw on moments and the basic story of the original as background information, but even without that background audience members will easily be able to pick up on what is happening.
Perhaps the story is best understood as a combination of Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland and the poem "Jabberwocky" which appeared in Carroll's sequel to Alice, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There. The basic story finds a 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) absconding from a party upon learning it's for her engagement and following the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) into a rabbit hole (much as in the original book).
Her trip to Underland finds her tasked – according to a calendar that tells the future – of slaying the Jabberwock using the Vorpal Sword on the Frabjous Day. Said Jabberwock fights for the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). It is a destiny which Alice fights desperately at first but eventually agrees to undertake.
As with much about the film, Alice's exact motivations are somewhat murky. She is at first completely against simply following what she's supposed to do, opting instead to attempt to save the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) from the Red Queen.However, at some point she opts to get the sword and attempt to slay the Jabberwock, thereby returning the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to the throne.
Tim Burton is, without a doubt, a visionary director, but if his last few films have taught us anything, it's that his vision is relatively constant no matter the work. Burton's over-the-top, hyper-stylized Alice is incredibly similar in feel to both his take on Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and Sweeney Todd (2007) – just to name two of his recent directorial efforts – which is more than a little odd when one considers the subject matter of Todd. Perhaps it doesn't help to repeatedly use Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp in his films, but certainly other directors repeatedly use the same actors over and over again. Depp's Hatter here, without a doubt, feels eerily similar to not just his other Burton films but his portrayal of Jack Sparrow as well.
Simply put, at this point, Burton's films no longer feel unique from one another – there is nothing here to distinguish or separate Alice from the pack. The ancillary characters, most notably Hathaway's White Queen and Crispin Glover's Knave of Hearts, could have proven interesting characters, if they were given anything beyond the barest amount of character to begin with. There is more to Burton's work than simply throwing Johnny Depp into a funny outfit and letting him be funny, but if one were to attempt to describe Burton's films of late in brief, that explanation would suit more than one of them. That is something of disappointment because both men are capable of much more.
It is also a disappointment because Burton's Alice is – logic and motivation notwithstanding – a pleasant 109-minute romp through Carroll's world. In fact, were I choosing someone to direct a live-action version of the book, Burton would be at the top of my list. And yet, despite the fact that Burton has never done Alice before and this is not the same story we've seen before, the film seems all too familiar.
Also familiar, but in a good way, is the high definition release Disney has given us. The studio has figured out the exact right way to make a film look and sound on Blu-ray, and Alice in Wonderland is no exception. The colors pop off the screen, there is an incredible amount of definition to virtually every texture, and it suits Burton's stylized look perfectly. It is absolutely beautiful to look at from start to finish. The 5.1 channel DTS-HD Master Audio track is equally good, making excellent use of the surrounds and bass, and is well-mixed for home viewing. You're probably smart enough to realize that you're not actually in Underland while watching the film, but the bits of background noise (ambiance, if you will) in each scene do a pretty good job of convincing you otherwise.
One of the odder things included on the Blu-ray release is, should one have an Internet-connected player, the disc menu providing you with that day's weather forecast. I couldn't quite guess what the joke is, although I'm sure there is one. The release also comes with the far more easy to understand standard bevy of behind-the-scenes pieces. They're broken down into larger categories "Wonderland Characters" and "Making Wonderland." These are further broken down into short pieces describing exactly what you would think (characters and behind-the-scenes how-did-they-do-that bits). There is nothing terribly shocking about any of it (save maybe Helena Bonham Carter's prosthetics and makeup), but it does show all the work that goes into creating such an immense film. Should one buy the three-disc Blu-ray release it comes with both a DVD copy (which has some of the featurettes but not all) and a digital copy.
If you're looking for a new and different Alice in Wonderland story you may well find yourself incredibly happy upon finishing this film. If you're looking for a new and different Tim Burton story, you're likely to be greatly disappointed.
Article first published as Blu-ray Review: Alice in Wonderland (2010) on Blogcritics.