Weirdness Is As Weirdness Does
Main Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway
Director: Tim Burton
First: full disclosure. I cannot stand the source material for this film. Over the years I’ve read and seen countless versions of the Lewis Carroll classic and at no time did I find it magical or whimsical or any of the positive adjectives other people use. I, instead, found Alice in Wonderland stupid and boring – like watching someone else’s acid trip or mental illness. With that caveat, if someone was going to make yet another version, Tim Burton was a good choice. His flair for visual hijinks fits the story well – I’m not insulting Burton, just saying that if anyone could have fun with the general weirdness of this story, it would be him. Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is actually something of a combination of two Carroll stories – Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. With a few Burton twists and spins. Surprisingly (to me) the film is quite delightful.
Filmed to be shown on the big screen in 3D, Alice in Wonderland opens with a now-grown Alice (Mia Wasikowska) on her way to a garden party at which, unbeknownst to her, she is to become engaged. Alice has had nightmares since childhood about white rabbits in waist-coats, tea parties and other extraordinary things. She really isn’t a typical girl, anxious to be wed and taken care of. She’s rather more fanciful and independent, much like her now-deceased father. When the moment of her engagement is at hand, she flees (after a rabbit in a waist-coat) and ends up once again falling down the rabbit hole.
Where she finds herself is the stuff of nightmares – her own. All of the original scenes from Alice are intact, the potion to shrink and cake to grow, the discovery of the key and the doorway that leads into the fantasy world of what is now known as “Underland”. The difference is that she is being watched – and judged – by those who want to know if she is the real Alice, the one who has been here before and is destined to save them all from the evil Red Queen. The rest of the film follows Alice as she meets the traditional assortment of Carroll characters and has a few unexpected and remarkably coherent adventures.
First – where the film fails. I expected this to be a long list, but it really is quite brief. Mia Wasikowska, who was wonderful in Defiance, is a very pale and wan initial Alice. She perks up once she’s down the hole, but in the initial scenes she’s nearly colorless and one is hard pressed to understand why anyone wants to marry her. I don’t think it’s a matter of bad casting (because she does very well in the bulk of the film) but rather of poor choices in costume and make-up design. Anne Hathaway as the White Queen also suffers from make-up and wardrobe failure. Honestly, she looks ghastly and should definitely never go blonde. There are some areas where it’s clear that the film took advantage of 3D technology. That’s lovely for people watching it on a 3D screen, but for the rest of us it looks a little odd and is actually jerky and unpleasant in a few places. Personally, I’m ready for 3D to go away.
Now – where the film succeeds. This is a big admission for me – I once swore I would never even see the thing just from the acid trip trailer. But it’s really quite charming. By using material from two stories, screenwriter Linda Woolverton creates something very close to a coherent narrative (I think she should get a plaque or certificate or at the very least an ice cream cone for this feat), with an Alice we understand, characters whose stories make some sort of sense and a beginning, middle and end to the story. I never thought I would see such a thing. Brava, Linda!
Burton is completely in his element. The oddball characters that simply beg for his visual treatment are done beautifully. From the white rabbit (who is quite plain) to the Red Queen with her giant head (Helena Bonham Carter looks to be having a wonderful time with this silly role) to the simply marvelous Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) with his wild hair, colorful make-up and gap-toothed grin of madness. The whole of Underland is painted with the Burton brush of vibrant colors, fantastical beasts and darkness underlying the colorful chaos. There’s always been darkness to Alice and he lets it out both visually and through the characters. Depp especially is given a chance to explain both his madness and the mess that is Underland through narrative and flashback. It’s quite effective.
Wasikowska comes into her own once she arrives in Underland. She’s a lovely girl and letting her hair down and giving her a little more color do wonders in showing her off. She isn’t a Barbie doll, she’s a real looking person and for that it’s easy to like her. I like her reluctance to believe her circumstances and hesitation to be a hero. She’s also very sweet in the scenes in which she forms a bond with the Mad Hatter, as well as many of the other characters. She’s a kind and gentle heroine with enough sense to question both this place and these creatures.
Overall I had a good time with Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland. It still isn’t my favorite story in the world, or one I even particularly like. But I enjoyed his interpretation of the material as well as the story put together in the screenplay. The movie is visually fun and acceptably coherent. Three stars from me for this Alice in Wonderland. If that seems low, remember that I’m coming from a place where the source material gets negative five stars. I can without hesitation recommend this film to Alice lovers and Alice haters. Give it a shot, it’s a reasonably fun movie. I won’t watch it again, but I got through it once without either falling asleep or turning it off in disgust. And that’s a first. 3 1/2 stars out of 5.
photo by Angela George