Burton follows Carroll down the rabbit hole in a funny, engaging ‘Alice in Wonderland’
The better you know the Alice books of Lewis Carroll, the more you’ll appreciate Tim Burton’s winsome and nutty remix, Alice In Wonderland. Instead of rehashing of the familiar children’s story, Burton and scriptwriter Linda Woolverton borrow elements from both classic Carroll books, “Alice In Wonderland,” and “Through The Looking Glass,” then dare to imagine an entirely new story populated by Carroll’s enduring fantasy characters.
Burton and collaborator Woolverton (she wrote the marvelous script for Disney’s Beauty And the Beast) understand what makes the books so much fun—deadpan, Seinfeld-like conversations about the minutiae of life, the usefulness (or not) of language, silly plays on words, and the stubborn pragmatism of resourceful little Alice in a world gone cheerfully mad. Staying true to this antic, anarchic spirit, they fashion a funny, girl-empowering saga that is often Carroll’s equal in drollery.
In this story, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is a slightly rebellious Victorian-era 19-year-old. Shanghaied to a surprise engagement party for her arranged betrothal to a pompous rich boy, Alice scoots off into the hedgerows in pursuit of a rabbit in a waistcoat and tumbles down the rabbit hole (a virtuoso sequence in which she caroms off the most amazing and amusing clutter). When she finally lands in the familiar locked room with one tiny door to the outside world and a drink and a cake to alter her size, unseen observers remark, “You think she’d remember all this from before!”
Alice has visited Wonderland (here called the Underland) as a child, but she doesn’t remember much and thought it was only a dream. Now, as she encounters the personae of the Underland— the “Tweedles” (Dum and Dee), the White Rabbit—she still thinks she’s dreaming while they debate whether or not she’s the right Alice. By the time she’s ushered to the eternally in-progress Tea Party, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) rolls out a scroll (decorated with the artwork of famous Carroll illustrator John Tenniel) and explains that she’s the subject of a prophecy. On the Frabjous Day, Alice is destined to slay the monster Jabberwocky and free Underland from the tyranny of the Red Queen.
In the first Alice book, royalty and their minions were based on playing cards like the Queen of Hearts. The second book was patterned after a chess game, with red and white queens, kings and knights. The film’s imperious Red Queen (a delicious comic performance by Helena Bonham Carter) is more Queen of Hearts. Red heart motifs dominate her court, scrollwork, even her hair-do; her soldiers are stylized, armor-plated red cards. Shouting “Off with their heads!,” she maintains her power through a ferocious black knight enforcer called Stayne (Crispin Glover).
Her sister, the White Queen (an uneasily platinum-blonde Anne Hathaway), beloved by the people, is confined to her checkerboard estate with her loyal court and chess-piece soldiers. In her quest to restore the White Queen to power, Alice’s staunchest ally is the Hatter; sublimely silly and soulful as only Depp can be, he’s part court jester, and part spirit guide. When Alice balks at her task, he says she was “much more…muchier” as a child. “You’ve lost your muchness,” he tells her, in an exchange Carroll would love.
Depp and Carter get to act their parts with only a few CGI flourishes (like the Red Queen’s hilariously bulbous head). Other characters are completely digital (but no less effective), like the Caterpillar (voiced with lubricous verve by Alan Rickman) and the cheeky Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry). A jail cell scene between the Hatter and “Chess” the cat is a marvel of magical fx, comic timing, and wistful emotion.
Some visuals do suggest Tenniel by way of Sleepy Hollow, but Burton mostly saves his Gothic-noir sensibility for depicting the Red Queen’s slash-and-burn policies. And even a somewhat gruesome moment when tiny Alice clambers over severed heads in the Red Queen’s moat to sneak into her palace has a weirdly poetic quality. (“Lost my muchness, have I?” she cracks.) Alice’s quest toward selfhood (“I make the path!”), and her knack for turning fearsome enemies into allies along the way, combine with the film’s ravishing look and clever script for a buoyant heroine’s journey well worth taking.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND ★★★★
With Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, and Mia W. Written by Linda Woolverton. From the novels by Lewis Carroll. Directed by Tim Burton. A Walt Disney release. Rated PG. 108 minutes.
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