Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland
Quick Take: Though Burton's Wonderland bears his trademark darkness, the nonsensical world will be just fine for kids who've enjoyed the more recent Harry Potter films.
Something about Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland made me wish I was still nine years old.
OK, so it was my next-door seat mate, a 9-year-old girl who was not just agog at every detail of the candy colored, madcap-charactered film – she was transported. Meanwhile, I felt like I had somehow skipped over the magical rabbit hole and just got stuck in an entertaining enough film that never quite took me to Wonderland.
To be fair, Lewis Carroll's book and world are one-of-a-kind. And so is a mind like Tim Burton's, responsible for creating worlds of his own in films like Edward Scissorhands and Beetlejuice. And while for some, the pairing is just perfect, for others, the film is going to feel like it doesn't belong enough to Burton, or to Carroll. But then, maybe that's the nature of imagination: it's individual, and the Wonderlands in our heads are always different.
This film plays with Carroll's narrative, and revisits Wonderland some 13 years after Alice's first journey there. She's now nearly 20, and Wonderland denizens consider her the savior who will rescue them from the tyrannical reign of the Red Queen (played in true, larger-than-life villain style by a wickedly awesome Helena Bonham Carter.) But even though a film mounting to a grand battle seems to have some structure to it, the story feels taped together.
It's a tough tale to crack: Even Disney's first, animated Alice has a loosey-goosey flawed story, in which the audience merely follows Alice as she's dragged from place to place. While that version mimics how kids play, mingling mismatched toys and their own imaginations, the Disney visuals are what keep it afloat – otherwise, there's not much to hang one of the Mad Hatter's top hats on.
This new version also delivers on dream-like, brilliantly hued visuals, but it's the characters -- brought to life by some true talents -- that really overcome a somewhat weak story. Alice is gracefully played by Australian newcomer Mia Wasikowska, who brings the perfect wide-eyed earthiness to the role. Unfortunately, the character is given more to do at a real-world garden party in the film's opening than once she gets to Wonderland. Amongst her earthly peers, she's different and rebellious: a girl of 19 who cares not about marriage and custom, and who is haunted by a dream that she once went to a place filled with strange creatures. Down in Wonderland (really, Underland: it turns out she had the name wrong all this time), Alice seems puppeteer-ed by a future-telling scroll that spells out the entire compendium of Wonderland history that feels like one big spoiler.
While the aforementioned Helena Bonham Carter steals the show as the big-headed, big-voiced, yet still vulnerable Red Queen, every cast member delights: Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter -- with his maniacal clown face makeup -- plays the character for the tragedy he is. His madness isn't all loud, hyper antics, but also bizarre rambles and rants. Michael Sheen's White Rabbit is as he should be: always late and perpetually a little bent-out-of-shape about it. Crispin Glover menaces as he literally towers over Underland as the very tall, and somewhat sinister, Knave of Hearts. No one's voice suits the wise Caterpillar like Alan Rickman's, and Stephen Fry maddens with his wonderful Chesire Cat. For comical effect, Matt Lucas' brothers Tweedle are all Goofus, no Gallant; and Paul Whitehouse's March Hare is both a literal and figurative crack-up. Even Ann Hathaway's White Queen, a potentially too-sweet character, shows a sinister side to her Glinda the Good Witch front.
The wonderful acting just helps to prove that, in Wonderland, nothing is quite as it seems, and everything has a flipside. Now I just hope on my second viewing that I get in touch with my flipside ... and she's a 9-year-old.
Kids Will Like:
Every kid will probably walk away with a different obsession. The rip-roaring tea party is tons of fun. Palace life with the Red Queen is also full of moments so funny, they'll make heads roll. The word play might grab some kids, while the bright colors and odd sights will dazzle others. The tween girls went absolutely mad for every one of Alice's costume changes.
Parents Will Like:
Alice is a good strong heroine, and it's always nice when a movie has a message that it's okay, and sometimes preferable, to be an outsider. By the end of the film, her trip to Wonderland has helped her truly find herself -- and taught her that you don't have to kowtow to society's wishes if they're not your cup of tea. For themselves, parents will enjoy the classy cast, and will probably catch some jokes that go over kids' heads.