Alice in Wonderland (2010): * 1/2 (out of 4)

Over the last year, Hollywood has learned a big lesson: stereoscopic 3-D movies can sell a lot of tickets. Just about every animated movie worth its salt came out in 3-D last year; and what live action movies could be converted, were converted. This was made painfully obvious by the $2.5B that Avatar has made so far, a figure that can in no small part be attributed to its seamless use of 3-D to actually improve the movie, instead of just to look new and shiny. Now that this has become obvious, the onslaught has begun; movies will be in 3-D, especially those aimed at children.

Sadly, I don't believe that much of Hollywood has a clue of how to use 3-D appropriately yet.

The new Alice in Wonderland movie is a good example, in that it doesn't even seem to try to do anything interesting or good with its 3-D. Sure, you get the occasional fall down a deep hole ("look at the things flying past me!"), and some action scenes that try to show a separate foreground and background; but most of the time the 3-D just makes the scenes feel cluttered. Its use in the 19th century England scenes was just downright distracting. And given that this is was created by a "visually novel" director like Tim Burton... well, I worry for the next few years, when less skilled directors take over.

(But ah, you say, isn't the problem that the movies are being directed for both 3-D and 2-D? Well, perhaps; but is that likely to change? Until we have ubiquitous 3-D displays in our homes, the studios will insist that their movies will display well in some form of home release; and so we're stuck with this problem. Really, though, I expect that this is a problem that will take a new generation of directors to work through. 3-D is going to be as hard to grok as color was last century.)

I suppose that the movie was still pretty, in its own way. The particular style of prettiness was a fairly typical but low-key version of Tim Burton's normal work - that is to say, colorful and twisted with a touch of dark humor, and (lately) based on an older work with its own distinctive style (in this case, the 1951 animated version). But looking back, even though I didn't like the England scenes that much, I still think they looked better and more interesting than the rest of the movie. Should that not bother me? Well, frankly, it didn't bother me as much as the rest of the movie...

In character, this new version of Alice most resembles Return to Oz with a touch of Kingdom Hearts tossed in. The movie was not a re-telling of the original Lewis Carroll stories; instead, it's treated as a sequel, with Alice now a late teenager. This would be fine if there was a purpose and a theme to it all (see also: American McGee's video game version), but instead we just went on a journey through all the things that Alice saw the last time she visited as a child, except this time everybody was sad instead of mad. There were no useful metaphors to growing up, no sense of exploration of a new world, nothing clever, nothing fun. None of it seemed to be any more than your typical "hero visits fantasy world, saves the day" plot. None of it mattered, even to Alice.

There were characters; who knew that this would be a negative? Alice is supposed to be a character reacting to absurdities; instead, she became The Chosen One, rescuing people because that's what The Chosen One is supposed to do. And rather than just being caricatures, the other actors are asked to both act and actively participate in the story. There is Johnny Depp, playing Johnny Depp with a hat; there is the Queen of Hearts that says "off with his head" a lot because it was funny 60 years ago, who is in some kind of dynastic struggle; there is a sister, Washed-Out Anne Hathaway; there is the Cheshire Cat, who is now suddenly a very active cat; there is a Bandersnatch that, err, I'm not really sure what was up there; and there are a lot of animals that, to be fair, are pretty well animated. Across the board, we're supposed to look at these others as characters. And I don't really think that works.

Things I liked: the woman that played Alice did a good job with what she was given (even if I spent the movie thinking she was Ginny Weasley, instead of the girl from the first season of In Treatment). The first time they used the phrase "frabjous day". The use of a Vorpal Sword on screen, and all of the bits from the Jabberwocky poem. The idea that women can be independent. The obscure Dr Seuss reference.

Things I disliked: the rest of the actors. The second time they used the phrase "frabjous day". The insistence of using the name 'Jabberwocky' instead of the shorter 'jabberwock' where appropriate. The poor introduction of the idea that women can be independent. Oh, and the plot.

So, yeah, on balance, it didn't come out well. I'd avoid it if I were you. And, perhaps, join me in hoping that Hollywood doesn't learn any more lessons from this movie's success.

* 1/2

As a side-node - Tron: Legacy looks awesome! Yeah, it'll eventually suck, but for now I am psyched.