Let’s begin with the premise that it’s virtually impossible for everyone who saw Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland to have hated it, or even regarded it with chilly indifference. Far be it from me to equate box office success with quality, but a movie does not gross one billion dollars worldwide on the backs of hatred or even indifference. On a more manageable scale, it’s rare that a movie grosses over $300 million in the United States with such uniform distaste, either. (In other words: Sorry, guys; someone likes those Transformers movies.) Yet based on the internet, you’d be excused for assuming that Burton’s Alice is one of the most loathed and loathsome movies of all time, a point of no return for Burton, Johnny Depp, Disney, cinema, literary adaptations, 3D… take your pick. Its success has been chalked up entirely to the fact that it was a big 3D movie coming out on the heels of Avatar, discounting almost entirely the possibility that it succeeded because some of its audience wanted to see it, saw it, and liked it. Now its somewhat belated sequel is coming out, sans Burton’s direction, and Alice Through the Looking Glass is lackluster in some of the same ways its predecessor was flagged for (though still not really worthy of full-bodied hatred). As such, it’s worth investigating why the first film has inspired such vocal disdain.
First, let’s try to quantify said disdain, even though it may prove difficult, as so much of it lives in that unquantifiable wilderness known as comments sections. But most likely, you know or are someone who hated Burton’s Alice. Film critics were also largely uncharmed; though only about half gave the film a thumbs-down, many of the pans were particularly negative, especially in the film-geek blogosphere. Drew McWeeny called it a catastrophe and a career dead-end for Burton. Devin Faraci called it terrible in a review that also uses the word “pestilent.” Critical consensus seems to place it as one of his worst, saved from the lowest slot only by the (lack of) grace of his Planet of the Apes re-do.
Alice is certainly one of Burton’s more conventional films, though its imposition of a standard fantasy-quest narrative onto Lewis Carroll’s decidedly non-questy work actually runs counter to the rap on Burton, that he’s a meandering visualist who doesn’t know anything about story or care to find out. This, then, is apparently what happens when Burton tries for a more conventional narrative: It’s pilloried for not being sufficiently weird, or true to the Carroll book that wouldn’t really work as a faithfully adapted film. But, fair enough, it isn’t one of Burton’s strongest movies, in large part because it feels so within his wheelhouse that the gears seem capable of turning without him. The first uber-Burton movie (an adaptation of seemingly Burton-friendly material with gothic trappings and Johnny Depp) was arguably 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, and Alice isn’t nearly as sumptuous as that, nor as kicky as his take on Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. It feels, like Burton at his weakest, a little easy.
Still, this doesn’t quite explain the popular anti-Alice vitriol. A big Disney fantasy movie that doesn’t really have a reason to exist? Don’t those come out a couple times a year now? I’ll take second-tier Burton over upper-tier Jon Favreau or Kenneth Branagh about eight and a half times out of ten. There must be something more to Alice hatred than mere disappointment that Burton doesn’t hit it out of the park every time these days. That something may or may not be Johnny Depp, who became a beloved movie star after two decades of putting in the work, and was promptly knocked for exactly the ostentatious, performative style that vaulted him into Pirates of the Caribbean-level fame and fortune—especially when teamed with Burton. All of a sudden, Depp doing shtick in a Burton fantasy, even in what amounted to a supporting role, was deeply, tragically uncool, punctuated with a silly dance. The horror! The embarrassment!
In part, I think there’s an element of self-loathing in the way some audiences have turned on Burton and Depp—a disdain for the fact that they’ve both aged, and no longer offer the same surprises that they sprung circa Edward Scissorhands (or, in Depp’s case, the same youthful outsider cool). The Burton aesthetic can be dismissed as Hot Topic pandering, which is another way of saying: Look how dumb it is that certain types of teenagers like certain types of things. Which itself is often another way of saying: Look how dumb maybe I myself used to be, because it’s possible I used to fall for a certain aesthetic, but I am much smarter and more sophisticated now. In other words, let the Hot Topic kids have their lipstick goth! High school is hard! Is it so bad when a movie is made for an audience of Not You?
Which brings me to another theory about hating Alice: I gotta wonder if, like the Twilight series (which was in full swing when Burton’s movie came out; Eclipse set a wide-release screen count record that very summer, and hasn’t yet been surpassed), the movie gets more grief because it’s about a girl. Few of the formal reviews let that creep into their writing (McWeeny and Faraci, as capable as they are of quaking with demonstrative nerd-rage, tend to lean progressive on these issues), and I’m sure as far as the popular vote goes, plenty of Alice-haters are women. It’s even possible to argue condescension, I guess, via the generic girl-power spectacle of an armored Alice taking on the Jabberwocky. But is it really so offensive that the book’s Alice was shifted from a reactive little girl to a peevish young adult with a sword and a furrowed brow? When Alice in Wonderland gets dismissed as generic fantasy, that’s an aspect that typically gets overlooked: It’s a generic fantasy plot starring a young woman, which immediately sets it apart from, say, the Lord of the Rings series (that, and it not being boring), and its many ripoffs. If Burton/Depp and Hot Topic are no longer cool enough for plenty of adult dudes, just imagine throwing girl power into the mix! Conventional, borderline-formulaic hero’s-quest narratives apparently need to be concealed in the proper superhero outfits in order to be excused or embraced.
There may be other reasons, of course. Hating Alice in Wonderland will always inspire in me some very Alice-like bafflement over the state of the world. Then again, I don’t think Tim Burton has been coasting since ’99, either; see Big Fish, see Sweeney Todd, and especially see Big Eyes because pretty much no one did, even after years of lamenting that the Burton of Ed Wood was gone forever. Maybe, no matter how you feel about it, Alice in Wonderland isn’t the end of anything.