From the outset, Jan Švankmajer didn’t want to make his Alice is an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s work but a reimagining. It begins enough like the book, with Alice sitting next to her sister by a riverbank, but instead of being an insubordinate daydreamer she is a quite the naughty child, aggressively throwing rocks into the stream. Her sister has to slap her to make her stop. Further, the film challenges the notion (never stated by Carroll) that Alice’s dress must be blue.
An opening title card says that Alice was “inspired by” Carroll, and the film mixes Tim Burton’s complete revamping of the works with Paramount’s faithful to the note adaptation. Švankmajer’s intent was a film both founded on the classic, but with a mind of its own.
Alice is definitely bizarre and often creepy. So were the books but, in this film, Alice’s real-world is just as weird as Wonderland. The creatures of the strange world she conjures up are more obviously now products of a disturbed child. The White Rabbit has to stuff himself with sawdust (much like the Scarecrow of Oz had to with straw) to stay alive. The Caterpillar is hardly recognizable as a sock puppet that has to knit its eye shut before it can go to sleep and the Mad Hatter is a wooden marionette with a bald scalp and hairy face.
Purists should probably stay away because only the faintest outline of Carroll’s work remains. For instance, instead of falling down the rabbit hole, Alice now has to squeeze her way into a writing desk and into Wonderland.
Maybe the film shouldn’t have claimed association to the Alice books at all and broken free. This way it would have been easier to take on its own terms. As is, Alice doesn’t work. As polarizing as Burton’s scramble was, it had reverence for the source material. This film is in the clumsy position of trying to do its own thing while clinging to Carroll. As a result, its imagination is limited and, if that’s what you’re looking for, you won’t find an understanding of Carroll’s mood here.
Stylistically, Alice is a mess. Not in the idea, as there is nothing wrong with stop-motion animation, but in the free-range potpourri of techniques (Alice herself becomes a doll when she shrinks) that become a distraction.
Alice is so emotionless that the much acclaimed grimness of the adaptation are treated as a matter of fact, even during such disturbing moments as when a mouse is building a bonfire atop Alice’s head, hammering twigs into her skull. It’s an uninvolving film throughout.
Each episode (faithful to the books or not) is dwelled upon to the point of dullness. Alice trying to get through the tiny doors, the rabbit getting into his house, and the mad tea party go on longer than what their interest potential can sustain.
Visually too the film is an eyesore. Cheap wooden walls and deteriorating hallways pass for sets here. Nothing at all is what Wonderland looked like in Carroll’s mind. Alice looks as if it was produced by children playing Wonderland in their bedroom.
There isn’t a market for this picture. Carroll disciples should steer clear, but also those seeking a whimsical work of the imagination. Both will find a dreary film about a weird girl and a sadistic bunny. Alice isn’t much of anything for anyone.