Rapid Review – Alice in Wonderland
“I wonder if I’ve been changed in the night? Let me think. Was I the same when I got up this morning? I almost think I can remember feeling a little different. But if I’m not the same, the next question is ‘Who in the world am I?’ Ah, that’s the great puzzle!” – Alice in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland
Alice, the heroine of Lewis Carroll’s great children’s novels, has always been a symbol of the lost and lonely. Her adventures are all about finding the courage within, the voice of independence. The Alice of Tim Burton’s new film Alice in Wonderland, despite all appearances of being a proper Victorian-era young miss, has definitely been reading some Gloria Steinem and Erica Jong. This Alice’s attitudes and actions are way beyond her time. She’s a budding feminist in a world that doesn’t comprehend what it means for a woman to speak her mind and assert her own independence. It’s no accident that once Alice literally loses her corsets in the film, she’s “free” to adventure in Wonderland.
Tim Burton’s past films have been about establishing unusual, fantastic worlds. When it comes to establishing mood and a sense of wonder in a film, Burton’s at the top of his field. In his past live action films such as Batman, Big Fish and Sleepy Hollow, he’s taken a previous creator’s works and tranformed them into visual pinatas – the viewer can’t wait to see what eye candy Burton will throw at them next. In his subtler films, like Edward Scissorhands, he’s even managed to make suburban America into an undiscovered country. With Alice, Burton has uncovered an equally disarming world. Alice is a children’s tale on the surface, but its rules and inhabitants are best understood and appreciated by adults. In aging the original character, we can see Wonderland through her eyes as it truly is: disturbing and harsh.
Disney’s original, animated Alice was a wide-eyed, innocent cartoon. Burton’s Alice, played by newcomer Mia Wasikowska (turn all the ws into vs and you’ll have an idea of how to pronounce that Eastern European moniker) is just as wide-eyed, but beneath her pleasant exterior, she is full of surprises. This Alice has a distant memory of the Alice who has been to Wonderland before, but she believes it is all a dream. She’s blocked out all of her adventures as a sort of childhood trauma. This Alice, who is at 19 on the verge of being “grown up”, has a new reason to escape the real world: a horrific potential husband.
So Alice returns to Wonderland, which is in a state of turmoil. There’s a coup brewing to overthrow the current leader, and all our old friends from the original tales must band together for one last big battle. This is the least interesting part of the story. All the “wonder” in Wonderland happens in its inital 2/3rds as Alice gets her footing among its nooks and crannies. The last third is standard end game cliche. Carroll’s original creatures are all still hanging out in their usual haunts – although he’s combined some characters and altered others to condense the story a bit. This is all forgivable.
Wonderland itself is a visual delight, if at times overwhelming in its need for creatures to jump out at you simply for the sake of, well…jumping out at you. Several scenes take the original animated Alice‘s creations and mold them into crisp, new visions. Much like Pandora in Avatar, Wonderland gets the re-carpet CGI treatment.
The only downside to this frantic and fun-house style focus is that all the characters (with the exception of Alice and the lazy caterpillar) speak in shouting, urgent voices, which can get a bit tiring after awhile. It makes sense for the white rabbit to be in such a hurry (he is very late, after all), but everyone else needs to chill out a bit.
Johnny Depp has become for Tim Burton what Leo DiCaprio is for Martin Scorsese (how’s that for an SAT style analogy?). Their visions and styles have become intertwined, almost inseperable. Depp has a maniacal gleam in his eye that has well-suited him for Burton’s fast-paced films. He was terrifying as Sweeney Todd, quirky and disturbing as Willy Wonka, and here , as the Mad Hatter, he wears orange-tinted hair and seems to bear a constant air of whimsy. That is, if whimsy weren’t so creepy. The Hatter was a supporting character in Carroll’s tales, but if you hire Johnny Depp, you know he’s going to be front and center for most of the action.
Helena Bonham Carter, Burton’s real-life creative and personal partner, is the villain of the piece – The Red Queen, who is the typical despot trying to bring the masses under her thumb. She’s animated as a shreiking, top-heavy blowhard, in makeup any movie geisha would envy.
Ann Hathaway is the White Queen, who is as ethereal and puzzling as the Red Queen is over-the-top. Hathaway’s performance is the more difficult of the two – and she is marvelous. She seems unflappably good and pure on the surface, but every now and then she lowers her guard and we see the steely nerve beneath. The White Queen understands what the beheading-crazy Red Queen does not: ruling is 10% heredity and 90% PR.
Burton’s film is s show-stopper in terms of visual images and technological wonders. The danger lies in looking too deeply at the script. After eating up all that visual candy in the pinata, you might have one heck of a stomachache to pay for later. Much like Alice – who let her childhood memories of Wonderland fade, so may it go with film-goers. Still, Alice is entertaining enough to please the younger kids, and its wink-wink air of nostalgia is enough to satisfy the adults who remember Alice’s original tales.
Alice is not Burton’s best film for kids (or adults). It doesn’t have the powerful originality and moving performances of Edward Scissorhands, or the sweet, heartbreaking romance of Corpse Bride or The Nightmare Before Christmas. Still, it is a great opening act for a promising spring and summer crop of upcoming films.
Overall Grade: B+