From Walt Disney Pictures and visionary director Tim Burton comes the epic fantasy adventure Alice in Wonderland, a magical and imaginative twist on some of the most beloved stories of all time.
Johnny Depp stars as The Mad Hatter and Mia Wasikowska as 19-year-old Alice, who returns to the whimsical world she first encountered as a young girl, reuniting her with childhood friends: The White Rabbit, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, The Dormouse, The Caterpillar, The Cheshire Cat, and of course, The Mad Hatter. Alice embarks on a fantastical journey to find her true destiny and end The Red Queen's reign of terror.
As I was walking through the MoMA exhibit dedicated to the works of director Tim Burton, it became abundantly clear that, as a director, there's very little to his work beyond its look. That isn't a knock. He's become a filmmaker who is now hired to graft the "Tim Burton look" (which he has carefully cultivated throughout his 30+ year career) to some pre-existing property or conceit, say, 'Planet of the Apes' or 'Sleepy Hollow.' So instead of a director defined by the typical stylistic conventions (his editorial rhythm maybe or camera angles and movements) it's more about the look and whether that look has been properly affixed to the material.
Again, this may sound like some kind of dig, but it isn't meant to be. Directing is a job, after all. And Tim Burton takes his job very seriously. It's just that watching a Tim Burton film has now become a kind of guessing game, as to whether or not his particular distinctions and proclivities mesh or clash with the material he's been hired to adapt. Sometimes these experiments in Tim Burton-izing are runaway successes, like his adaptation of stage mainstay 'Sweeney Todd,' which was a lyrical, bloodthirsty masterpiece. But sometimes you get 'Charlie and the Chocolate Factory,' a precious confection that was long on style and, well, just plain long.
(Gone are the days of gonzo original conceits like 'Edward Scissorhands,' 'Beetlejuice' or even his greatest filmmaking accomplishment, the humane and hilarious 'Ed Wood.' Again: I remain a dedicated Tim Burton fanatic, through thick and thin.)
All of this is an incredibly long-winded introduction to his manic take on Lewis Carroll's 'Alice in Wonderland' stories that also serves as a jazzed-up, 3-D revision of the beloved Walt Disney animated film. (This new movie is a Disney production, and they did a lot to make the connection explicitly clear.) There were rumors that, before its release, Disney was so worried about this new 'Alice' that they were going to dump it in theaters and then rush it to home video. Well, they did rush it to home video, but after it had amassed more than a billion dollars worldwide ($400 million in North America alone – yowza) and entered the record books as one of the most successful movies of all time.
So, is 'Alice in Wonderland,' spruced up with cutting edge visual effects and given the baroque Tim Burton treatment, a success creatively? I say yes. In the face of many naysayers, I might add. ("Off with his head!" they'll undoubtedly cry.)
Owing more, structurally, to Steven Spielberg's odiously autobiographical 'Hook' than anyone (myself included) would care to admit, this 'Alice' sees our young heroine (played by Mia Wasikowska) all grown up and living a chaste lifestyle in Victorian England. (There's much more to be written about Burton's recent Anglophile phase, at least partially inspired by his partnership, both creatively and romantically, with Brit Helena Bonham Carter, who here plays the wicked, balloon-headed Red Queen.)
On the day she's proposed to by a stuffy rube, the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) visits Alice. She, predictably, follows him down the rabbit hole, both literally and metaphorically. We're then treated to classic 'Alice' scenarios (she gets too tall, she gets too tiny), all rendered charmingly bizarre by Tim Burton and an army of production designers and visual effects wizards. Soon a very loose story takes shape: the inhabitants of Wonderland (among them Anne Hathaway as the goodly White Queen and Stephen Fry as the sphinx-y Cheshire Cat) require Alice's assistance in defeating the Red Queen and her cronies, the Knave of Hearts (played by a disembodied Crispin Clover) and dragon-like monster Jabberwocky.
The story, conceived by Linda Woolverton, a veteran of Disney Feature Animation, has a lot of wandering around, which is fine (there is a videogame-ish quality to the narrative, a kind of "go get the key that goes here" style), but the world is so beautifully realized that you're okay just staring, goggle-eyed, at the screen (I love the look and animation of the Cheshire Cat in particular). Alice's main ally in the fight to regain Wonderland's inherent goodness is the Mad Hatter, played once again by Burton stalwart Johnny Depp. With his orange tsunami of hair and his eyes huge and green, he's a typical Depp-ian weirdo, but one that is never too overbearing (or taking up too much screen time). Like Burton, there seems to be a method to his madness.
Many have complained about the film's rather mundane finale, which features the kind of big-ass battle that has been pretty standard for any large scale fantasy movie in the past decade (beginning with 'Lord of the Rings'). But this didn't bug me at all. In fact, I was impressed by Burton's handling of action, which has finally reached its peak. (He was so nervous about directing action in the first 'Batman' movie that he had John Woo help out. Seriously.) Plus, there's the surreal edge that the battle gets from being staged on a giant chessboard with many of the combatants looking like anthropomorphized playing cards.
The movie was put together marrying a number of complex visual effects techniques, including motion capture, all-out animation, and a kind of manipulation of performances (like Crispin Glover's head on the elongated animated body). Supposedly Disney wanted the whole thing to be motion capture, which Depp balked at, and which sent Burton in the opposite direction, initially envisioning the project encompassing everything from CGI to stop motion. Sadly, that never came to be (alongside Burton wanting to graft Alan Rickman's face onto the hookah-smoking caterpillar's head). For such an unusual mélange, though, Burton seems to have pulled it off with a fair amount of panache. You get the sensation that, since everything's malleable, he can tweak it to his specifications, much more like animation. Everything has been sent through the Tim Burton processor and come out the other side.
But there's an unexpected emotional resonance and some nice thematic stuff, too. If the movie's about the importance of the playground of dreams, than Alice's "awakening" that her childhood dreams of Wonderland were, in fact, real visitations, carries with it an oddly heartfelt punch. (The way the sequence is edited, along with Danny Elfman's wistful choral score, certainly doesn't hurt.)
There's also a nice thread of feminism in this retelling of the fanciful fairy tale. Alice is a particularly strong-willed young woman snubbing both her assumed "place" in both proper English society and the upside-down world of Wonderland. And you can bitch and moan about the movie being overcooked Hollywood trash, but it's a movie that ends with our female protagonist, dressed in drag, standing next to a giant phallic symbol (a ship's mast). It's a ballsy, striking image and one I cannot help but applaud.
Is 'Alice' perfect? Well, no. Occasionally the pacing suffers in the transition from one adventure to the next. Also, the "darkness" associated with Tim Burton's look is diminished somewhat, beyond the gnarled, curlicue trees that dot the more ruined sections of Wonderland. (We're very much in "Tim Burton whimsy" territory.) Also, it's hard to get a handle on Johnny Depp's Hatter characterization, particularly his use of two different accents. My best guess is that Hatter is some kind of schizophrenic – maybe the same dyes that he used on his hats (and turned his hair orange and eyes green) rotted his brain? But whatever the reason, it's never explicitly clear the reason he goes from a slightly lispy Englishman to a roaring Scotsman. Also, that dance he does is an embarrassment.
Still, 'Alice in Wonderland' is a hell of a good time, unbridled storybook fun. Even without that added dimension (that gave the whole look of the movie an irrepressible popup-book feel), it's a visual feast that anybody can enjoy. In terms of his populist work, this is Burton's most complete (both visually and narrative-wise) film in ages. I would encourage a return trip to Wonderland. Soon, please.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
The 50GB disc does auto-play, after which you're subjected to a brutalizing amount of advertisements and cautionary notes that is the Disney home video signature (one against smoking, and an even more bizarre spot with Tinkerbell railing against piracy – I wish I was making this up). There are two editions of this Blu-ray. The one I received has the Blu-ray, a separate DVD-only disc, and another Digital Copy disc. So, a three-disc set in all, housed in a surprisingly slim case, slimmer than most Criterion releases. It's a Region Free Blu-ray, too.
The 1080p AVC MPEG-4 video (aspect ratio: 1.78:1) is perfect. Yep. That's about it.
The movie was shot digitally and is heavily augmented and manipulated with computer generated imagery, yet everything looks absolutely wonderful. Even without the added dimension seen in theaters, your eyes will pop out of your head like Jim Carey in 'The Mask.'
Everything is crisp and clear and plenty dimensional. Skin tones look exactly as they should, which isn't exactly realistic, but isn't wholly alien either. People either look muted or glow-y, depending on the character. Similarly, the computer-generated characters look even more lifelike, which often isn't the case in high definition. Blacks are deep and bottomless. Colors pop off the screen. It's all just marvelous.
There are no imperfections in the film because, well, it's not film, it's perfect video. And there aren't any glitchy technical issues, either. No halos or aliases or artifacts. I don't know how many times I can say peerless, but that's really how good this transfer is. It's reference quality stuff. Look for it to be playing the next time you take a spin around Best Buy.
Similarly, the lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 audio track is as close to perfection as you're going to get.
The more intense sequences, say, a giant monster roaring at the camera, will make your home theater system rumble appreciatively. Elsewhere, quieter scenes of dialogue between the ethereal White Queen and Alice have a somber, affecting quality. Dialogue is crisp, clean, and well prioritized; sound effects pop marvelously without ever overwhelming; and the surround channels are utilized wonderfully.
It's definitely a more active mix than what I hear most of the time, which isn't a knock. It's just that recent releases rarely utilize the capabilities of surround sound as well as 'Alice in Wonderland' does. It's never overwhelming, but always present, a bang up mix for sure.
Also included on the disc is a French Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1 mix as well as subtitles in English SDH, French, and Spanish.
Here's where things come to a screeching halt. This Blu-ray release, so wonderful until now, takes a decided nosedive when it comes to digging into the special features because, well, there are none to speak of, really. We don't even get a commentary track by the big man himself. Maybe this was due to the quick turnaround from the theater to home video, but this really is inexcusable. Despite pre-release materials proclaiming otherwise, these extras should be on the legit DVD release since they are so scant, although none are present on the extra DVD copy here. As far as exclusives, that's about it – the DVD and the Digital Copy disc. Although it's not advertised, there is a BD-Live component to the disc, but there was little happening on there at press time. Look no further than the main menu, which has the current time and temperature in the upper righthand corner of the screen. Sort of weird.
I really appreciated Tim Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland.' It's an uncompromised visual feat, and even without the third dimension, is totally enveloping. Tim Burton's directorial career may have boiled down to little more than a look, but when it's applied evenly (and imaginatively), it's still a cinematic gift of unparalleled power. The audio and video on this disc are virtually unequaled, but a smattering of less-than-thrilling special features bumps it down a peg or two. Still, highly recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.