Live Action Disney Reviews with the Unshaved Mouse: Alice in Wonderland

Guys, be honest.

Am I just an unpleasable asshole?

A rule I really, really try to stick to in reviewing movies is this: never criticise someone else’s work unless you can articulate what you would have done differently. This is not to say that I have no constructive criticism of 2010’s Alice in Wonderland. I would, in fact, venture that I have quite the stack, teetering precariously in the corner as I write these words, ready to crush my tiny little mouse bones at the slightest inopportune breeze. And yet, I can’t help but feeling that a lot of what I am about to say might come across as a touch hypocritical if you are a long time reader of this blog.

“Mouse! Good news! We’ve remade Alice in Wonderland!”
“That’s bad news! I famously despise Lewis Carroll’s inexplicably beloved original novels!”
“Good news! The movie simply takes the setting and characters and works them into a new live action adventure!”
“That’s bad news! The only screen version of this story I enjoy is the original 1951 Disney feature and I hate your modern live action bastardisations of classic cartoons!”
“Good news! The movie borrows NOTHING of the original cartoon and attempts to forge a bold new path with its own aesthetic and continuity!”
“Did I…did I make you happy? PLEASE tell me I made you happy!”

So I kinda feel like I’m not reviewing this in good faith. I mean, is this movie a travesty of Carroll’s original work, crunching it into a generic Lord of the Rings rip-off slathered in a thin veneer of anachronistic corporate feminism to appeal to the broadest possible global audience so that Disney can bank another €1 billion dollars for the death ray fund?

Yes. It is that thing I said.

But how the hell am I supposed to make that argument? If this is a bad Alice, then what would meet my definition of a “good” Alice, considering I can’t stand the source material? (It occurs to me that I haven’t actually read either of the novels in two decades. I may need to go back and give them another go).

Well, I suppose it would be a movie that was able to do what the 1951 movie did, make me like the story of Alice through sheer artistic brilliance. I love the ’51 Alice not because it’s an Alice movie, but because it’s a Disney movie, possibly the most Disney movie of that era.

You’ve got Mary Blair on backgrounds. Verna Felton, Ed Wynne, Sterling Holloway and J. Pat O’Malley on vocals. The Nine Old Men directing animation. Music by Oliver Wallace. The movie works because it takes Carroll’s novel, sands off the creepier and more unpleasant elements, and uses the episodic nature of the story to allow some of the most talented men and women to ever work in animation to go buck wild. So I suppose, that’s what I want from an Alice in Wonderland adaptation. Something that can overcome the weaknesses of the source material by just being really, really beautiful.

“OH SHIT!”

So, it’s 1855 and British merchant Charles Kingsley is discussing his newest business venture with Victorian Britain’s finest moustache enthusiasts. Take a look at this exchange of dialogue:

LORD ASCOT
Charles, you have finally lost your senses.

A COLLEAGUE
This venture is impossible.

CHARLES KINGSLEY
For some. Gentlemen, the only way to achieve the impossible is to believe it is possible.

A COLLEAGUE
That kind of thinking could ruin you.

CHARLES KINGSLEY
I’m willing to take that chance. Imagine trading posts in Rangoon, Bangkok, Jakarta…

So, first point. This movie is set in 1855, so Kingsley rhapsodising about trading posts in South East Asia is a bit like me saying “imagine it readers! The human voice carried by telegraph wave!”. This ain’t exactly the radical, out of the box thinking the movie presents it as. But mostly I just want to draw attention to how bland and generic the dialogue is. There’s no craft or artistry to it. It just serves the function of telling you that Kinglsey is a maverick and his fusty buddies (or “fuddies”) think that he’s a loose cannon.

Their meeting is interrupted by Kingsley’s daughter, Alice, who was woken up by a bad dream. Kingsley pauses his super important business meeting and goes to tuck her in. She tells him about these weird dreams that she’s been having and he gives her some advice about being true to herself so you know this motherfucker is going to die. Like, he will be lucky to survive to the next scene. Sure enough, we cut to thirteen years later and Pa Kingsley has kicked the bucket and the now teenage Alice is being taken to to the home of Lord Ascot so that she can be proposed to by his awful son, Hamish. I recommend this whole sequence for a game of Bad Victorian Hollywood History Bingo. Don’t forget to down the bottle when our heroine complains about corsets being a tool of repression!

Oh, and look at this.

They’ve thrown this engagement party together and they didn’t even tell Alice she was being proposed to. Like, guys. It’s Victorian England. It’s not Ancient Sumer. If you ask her to marry you, she can say “no”. I mean, what kind of guy has the kind of insane egotism to throw an engagement party before the girl has even said she’ll marry him or even expressed any romantic in him?

I knew Gaston. Gaston was a friend of mine.
And you, sir, are no Gaston.

After Hamish proposes in front of half of the cast of Downton Abbey, Alice runs off into the garden and falls down a rabbit hole and we get our first look at Wonderland.

Wonderland? More like…shit. Land. Yeah.

Look, it’s all ugly and unpleasant and undefinably creepy so points for fidelity to the source material, I guess. After the usual business with the key and the shrinking “drink me” bottle and leaves her roughly the size of Robert Downey Junior she meets Tweedledum, Tweedledee, the White Rabbit, the Door-Mouse…um…I think the Dodo’s in there. Couple of flowers. They take her to see “Absolom” which is what we’re supposed to call the Caterpillar now, apparently. The rabbit asks Absolom if Alice is “The Alice” who is apparently a Chosen One destined to slay the “Jabberwocky”. Of course, “Jabberwocky” is actually the name of the poem, the beast is simply called “the Jabberwock” but shit, like that’s my biggest beef with this movie?

Absalom tells the assorted residents of the Uncanny Valley that Alice is “not hardly” the prophesied Alice which is super helpful. Suddenly, the are attacked by the forces of the Red Queen (who is the Cronenberg-esque result of merging Wonderland’s Queen of Hearts with Looking Glass‘s Red Queen) including a ferocious Bandersnatch. Alice, thinking that this is all a dream, tries to just get eaten by the Bandersnatch to escape the matrix but she’s rescued by the Dormouse who GOUGES OUT THE BANDERSNATCH’S EYE WITH HER LITTLE SWORD.

“DEATH TO THE ENEMIES OF NARNIA!”

The Knave of Hearts who’s played by Crispin Glover (who I’ve just realised is almost certainly a vampire because he hasn’t aged since Back to the Future) finds the prophecy and takes it to the Red Queen of Hearts played by a version Helena Bonham Carter that escaped from the Macroverse.

“Hey Georgie.”

The Queen sends her bloodhound Bayard to track down Alice, promising him that she’ll release his wife and puppies if he does.

It’s at this point that I once again find myself asking; what do I want from this movie? Or, to put it another way, should Wonderland matter? In the original novels, Wonderland and Mirrorland do not matter. There are no stakes in these stories. None of the characters, except, sort of, Alice, have any kind of rich emotional inner life or arcs that we are invited to care about. It’s all just nonsense. Creepy, plonking, unfunny Victorian nonsense, to be sure, but ultimately it’s not a story. It’s just stuff happening.

That seems like it should be a problem to be fixed in any adaptation. It should be good that the movie is trying to inject actual emotional and narrative stakes into the world of Wonderland (or “Underland”, as this movie obnoxiously insists on calling it). But, even if you put aside the fact that the script is dull and uninspired and the whole thing is drenched in this nasty, drab, chintzy CGI veneer, Carroll just didn’t make that kind of world. You can’t turn Wonderland in Middle Earth. The world doesn’t make any kind of logical sense, the characters have next to no history or interaction with each other. And most vitally, nothing matters. Nobody in Wonderland really cares about anything or anyone, least of all themselves. They’re all mad, you see. And in a world built on “lol, who cares?”, you can’t convince the audience that that they should, in fact, “lol care”. It’s like trying to make a fortress out of a doll’s house. You’re better off scrapping the whole thing and starting with new foundations.

Anyway, Alice escapes but is wounded by the Bandersnatch. The Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) finds her and explains that the wound will fester if she doesn’t find someone to magically heal her. He then takes her to meet the Mad Hatter and the March Hare. The Hatter (Johnny Depp), explains that that the Red Queen conquered Underland (feh) from her sister the White Queen and that he joined the resistance after the Jaberwock burned his family alive which was just rude.

“I’ll say it was rude! It was very, very rude! I was TRAUMATISED!”

The Knave arrives and the Hatter allows himself to be captured so that Alice can escape. She’s found by the Bloodhound, who’s actually working for the resistance and agrees to take her to the Queen’s Castle so she can rescue the Hatter.

She does this by crawling over the severed heads of the Queen’s Victims. God, Lewis Carroll would be furious.

“Fuck! Why didn’t I think of that!?”

The White Rabbit helps Alice by giving her some “Eat Me” cake which causes her to grow to a massive size. The Queen finds her and Alice takes on the alias “Um” and the Queen lets her stay because I think she’s got a giantess fetish (no judgement).

While in the palace, she steals the vorpal sword, which the Chosen One is destined to use to slay the Jabberwock and escapes with it to the palace of the White Queen. Now, I’ll give the movie one shiny nugget of praise: the casting. The casting is honestly top tier. Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar, hell even Depp as the Hatter works for me far better than I’d want to admit. Mila Wasikowska is kinda lost as Alice but honestly I’ll put that on the script, I think she’s doing as well as she can. But if I had to choose the one actor who’s my MVP it’s Anne Hathaway as the White Queen, pretty much the only one here who actually seems to be having fun.

We’re introduced to her with the following exchange of dialogue with one of her retainers:

“The trees seem sad. Have you been speaking to them?”

“Yes, your Majesty.”

“Perhaps a bit more kindly?”

She’s playing a Disney princess turned up to 11 and with absolute sincerity and it’s honestly the high point of the whole film.

The White Queen gives Alice a potion to return her to her regular size. Meanwhile, the Cheshire Cat rescues the Hatter from being executed and he leads the Red Queen’s subjects in an uprising against her. The White Queen and the Red Queen’s armies meet on a chessboard and oh for fuck’s sake…

Alice of Arc here fights and slays the Jabberwock, cutting off its head. The Red Queen’s troops surrender and the White Queen banishes her and the Knave of Hearts. Alice says goodbye to all her friends, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, the Mad Hatter, the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat and the Scarecrow, who she’ll miss most of all.

Alice wakes up in a hole in the garden with no time having passed at all and everyone still waiting on her to accept Hamish’s proposal. So what has she learned, our Alice? How have her adventures changed her? Well, she tell Hamish to go pound sand and then tells his father that…she wants to go into business with him.

And the movie ends with Alice heading her father’s company and preparing to open a trade route to Hong Kong.

I’m sorry what?

WHAT?

That’s the arc? Alice, the oddball, dreamy misfit who was never able to conform to the stifling strictures of Victorian womanhood goes on an epic quest to discover her true self and comes out the other side…a titan of Imperial capitalism ready to plunder the riches of the Orient and crush all who would resist her? REALLY?

That’s how you end this? Well. It’s unexpected, I’ll give you that.

“But the Chinese shall never trade with us!”
“One word, sir. OPIUM.”

***

I never bought Martin Scorcese’s criticism of the Marvel movies that they weren’t “cinema”. But I think he should have aimed his shot at a different spot on Disney’s great, ever-expanding hide. Alice 2010 just doesn’t feel like a movie. It’s a Potemkin village of a film, convincing from far away but fundamentally empty and hollow. Nothing about this feels like it comes from a true place of love or affection for the source material, or any impulse higher than “strengthen the brand”.

Alice in Wonderland deserved better than this movie. And when it’s me saying that…

Ways it improves on the original: The original what? The original Disney movie? Not a single solitary way. On the book? Eh. I do like Hathaway’s White Queen.

Ways it doesn’t: It’s so lazy of me to say “all of it”. But I’m a lazy Mouse.

“All of it.”

How angry did this movie make me?: Honestly, this just washed over me like a lukewarm bath. I felt nothing stronger than boredom.

FINAL SCORE: 31%

NEXT UPDATE: 18 August 2022

21 comments

  1. “Am I just an unpleasable asshole?”

    Honestly, I think you have gotten quite a bit softer over the years (I have been here since the Hercules review). I sometimes just have to go back and read some of your older reviews like “Lord of the Rings” since I get nostalgic for vicious mouse, and I love that movie.

    “never criticize someone else’s work unless you can articulate what you would have done differently. ”

    I do not even have that rule. Mine is just watch it at least twice (skimming for screenshots does not count), and in negative reviews I am more interested in figuring out if this was just a movie that should have been killed in production or not, and if a messy movie had multiple writers. Thus I cannot judge.

    “It’s like trying to make a fortress out of a doll’s house.”

    I presume you do not have any sisters. Doll houses make great forts for toy soldiers

  2. They really need to make an adaptation of American McGee’s Alice.

    And I’m not just saying that for the reason I USED to say that: because it was the coolest, grimest, gothiest thing teenaged me had ever seen and like all unpleasant teenagers I was all about that dark and edgy shit. I’ve outgrown that.

    No that movie or show needs to exist for exactly the reason you outlined in this review: it makes Wonderland matter. It’s just the old dreamworld of a now teenaged Victorian girl, but that’s WHY it matters. Because that girl has been completely shattered by a combination of horrific trauma, crushing grief, and her era’s treatment of the neurodivergent, and a shell of that dreamland is all that remains of the innocent person she once was. So by facing her demons and trying to restore her fantasies from the hellscape they’ve become, she’s slowly regaining her sense of self. Alice becoming a badass who kills the Jabberwock in that story is great because there the Jabberwock is the personification of her guilt. The Queen is the madness she escaped into. Some of the other characters are the abusive staff at the asylum she resides in. Overcoming them means something.

    Here Alice killing the Jabberwock unlocks her potential to become the ruthless colonizing capitalist every little girl dreams of being? When you wish upon a star…

    Happy tenth anniversary, Mr. Sharpson!

  3. I think it was around this time that we all came to the collective realization that Tim Burton had lost his spark. Say what you will about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or Planet of the Apes, but at the very least they were interesting as phenomena. This one had all the sizzle of the Mock Turtle doing his taxes, and it’s no big surprise that they didn’t have him back for the sequel.

    Beetle Juice, Batman, Edward Scissorhands – that Tim Burton is gone forever. Let’s remember and celebrate the good times we had, and not expect them to come again.

    Because if we don’t, then sure as shootin’ it’s only a matter of time before we get his version of Bambi.

  4. You remember that scene in “Hot Fuzz” where Simon Pegg is forced to sit through that horrible rendition of Romeo and Juliet? His mouth agape as his brain tries to comprehend the creative choices of the that terrible mess that can’t be called “theater” no matter how charitable you are?

    That was my expression when I was watching this.

    It was only when Alice cut out the Jabberwock’s tongue that I managed to snap back to reality and uttered a “fuck you movie” for depriving us of Christoper Lee’s dulcet tones.

  5. I…don’t hate this movie.

    I can’t! I saw this film two months before my thirteenth birthday. I was an awkward kid who didn’t really have friends and was still figuring things out about my identity. The Nightmare Before Christmas was one of my favorite films (and still is), and I wrote bad Sonic fan fiction. So when this Hot Topic Shadow the Hedgehog Alice came out, I was the perfect audience for it. This movie is hot garbage, but it’s my hot garbage.

    Even then, I haven’t seen the sequel and refuse to do so.

  6. >Of course, “Jabberwocky” is actually the name of the poem, the beast is simply called “the Jabberwock” but shit, like that’s my biggest beef with this movie?

    You’re more forgiving than I am. The rest of the movie has completely slipped out of my brain, but hearing the monster called “The Jabberwocky” still sets my teeth on edge every single time.

  7. You know the movie that really should make you a mad, mad, MAD ANGRY MOUSE?

    Chip ‘n Dale Rescue Rangers. It’s got all the naked and insincere ‘Look at how many things we have!’ gratuitous corporate boasting of Ralph Breaks the Internet but adding use of stuff from OTHER companies too, all the naked and insincere ‘Hey look we’re hip and radical for this era too, kids!’ posturing of Space Jam and all the naked and insincere going through the motions quality of a pirate ripoff of Roger Rabbit.

    Hell, it makes Space Jam 2 look sincere and soulful by comparison. SPACE JAM 2.

    I’m not saying that you should review it, I’m not saying that it would be good for you to review it, all I’m saying is that I regardless hope someday someone commissions the review. Me? I’m broke and live in the Third World as I’m too fond of reminding people.

    But it deserves a good old tearing up from someone, the kind they don’t do anymore, and you’re one of the few still around who can do those.

  8. “never criticise someone else’s work unless you can articulate what you would have done differently”, you know this is really good advice! I need to keep this in mind myself.

    I think you hit the nail on the head. This movie needed to be better and different, but how exactly? I don’t really know.

    1. For my money subverting the H—- out of Ye Olde “History Woman doth become Moderne Woman by Fairy Tale adventure & misadventure” plot by showing Miss Alice finally escape the strictures of Victorian Society by going cheerfully insane.

      Not full-bore “Ah, time to call Bedlam” madness, but “You know cousin Alice, lovely woman, very cheerful soul, not the marrying kind – NO! Ahem, no, we DO NOT let scissors anywhere near cousin Alice” bonkers (i.e. the sort a certain class of Victorian Family quietly allowed to go their own way).

      This would, if nothing else, allow one to embrace the inherent lunacy of Wonderland and the novels love of childish things – in essence we show a Big Serious Epic taken to pieces because it’s an insufferable bore and we have much more entertaining things to be getting on with.

  9. My dear Mouse, I’ve read far too many glowing reviews on this website to call you un-pleasable, but as a critic you naturally possess acutely high standards and a want of mercy when it comes to those who fail to meet them.

    I, on the other hand, am a relentlessly soft touch; how soft? Mr Joss Whedon’s JUSTICE LEAGUE is one of my favourite films, entirely without Irony.

    No, even I’m not quite sure how that happened, but my love to things DC probably has something to do with it.

    1. Wait, what? I love DC, some of my earliest memories are using Superman t-shirts and watching Superman Returns and the DCAU Justice League on repeat. But even I am ambivalent towards “Josstice” League. And I watched it on the cinema on opening day. It’s just such a messy movie. Perhaps you *are* too soft…

      On the other hand, I think Mouse has gotten a little softer over the years after he has been exposed to truly terrible things. At the start mere mediocrity inspired some ruthless jabs (Pocahontas is bad, but the shellacking it received, whoah), but now only something very bad gets such through trashings. But I actually like the more nuanced, “tries to see something good in every movie” review style. That’s why I’d gladly have ten years more, if Mouse permits of course.

  10. What bugs me about Burton’s Alice in Wonderland isn’t just the cookie-cutter “hero’s journey/chosen one” narrative. It’s the fact that in order for Alice to learn to act for herself and live her life without anyone telling her how to do so, she must…act according to a prophecy that tells her exactly what she’s supposed to do. The logic just doesn’t add up.

    1. That might, in fact, be more true to the original novel than any other element of the film – the only problem is that the film isn’t deliberately dancing away from conventional storytelling logic, it’s just wilfully ignorant.

  11. I feel like you were nicer to this film than I would have been.

    My major problem with it: for all its trying to pass itself off as “dark” and “mature,” it wasn’t. It takes more than a grubby palette and a little bit of PG-13 violence to make a story dark. There was no moral ambiguity (other than Alice becoming a tool of imperialism in the ending), no, it was a straight-up “good guys defeat bad guys” story that wouldn’t have shocked a child. Yes, Anne Hathaway played the White Queen as someone who hadn’t given in to her evil the way her sister had, but you wouldn’t have guessed that from the script.

    And as my sister put it: “You couldn’t have a prophecy in Wonderland. They characters would never follow it!”

    I did like the visuals, though, and the dark palette did make sense, given that Wonderland was supposed to be languishing under an evil overlord.

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