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Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

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Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland has been a box office smash, his biggest film to date, but unfortunately it's exemplary of the decline in quality his films have taken over the past 15 years, as he's moved from a deeply personal, one of a kind filmmaker to a brand that can be applied to various stories for a predictably boring experience. Alice combines a grotesque overuse of CGI with a by-the-numbers hero's journey narrative structure to create an utterly predictable warmed over film.

Burton chooses to reinterpret Alice by making a film that functions as essentially a sequel to the classic story. Here, Alice is a teenage girl with vague memories of once visiting Wonderland, something she writes off as a fever dream from her youth. However, she finds her way back to the world, and encounters all the characters from the original story again.

The big problem with this approach is that all the story beats are the same as in the original story, but we have no emotional connection to anything that's happening beyond memories of the original story. I know who those characters are, but I don't really care about them, and this film doesn't do anything more than just present the Cheshire Cat or Red Queen as people we should already be familiar with. With any reinterpretation of a myth, you need that new take or emotional hook to make it worth telling. Here, we don't get re-engaged, and that makes the entire work hollow.

Johnny Depp fares worst of all, giving a performance that goes beyond just passable and all the way to outright bad. He brings the same manic mannerisms he used in the Pirates films, but they fall hollow here. He's not a character, just a collection of tics and some makeup.

I'm still a huge fan of Burton's early work. From 1985, when he made Pee-Wee's Big Adventure to 1994 when he made Ed Wood, Burton managed to carve out his own identity within the Hollywood system and made a series of unique blockbusters that resonated with audiences and critics. The problem is by that point he had basically exhausted his creative capacity. His films always told similar stories, with similar visual styles, but he managed to find a way to make them unique.

Since that time, particularly since the failure of Mars Attacks!, he's retreated into a pale imitation of his old works. With Alice, all the ingredients of classic Burton are there, but there's no emotional core to the world. There's no sense of real people or emotions to engage with. This film in particular represents a nadir for him, and I'm not sure he'll ever return to even making good films, let alone ones that match up with the best of his '80s and '90s work.

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