Our rating: 4 out of 5
reviewed by Charity Bishop
Director Tim Burton has been entertaining audiences for years with his eccentric films but at last seems to have found the perfect topic for his talent. His Alice in Wonderland is a far cry from the muddled vignettes in the book. It is instead a story about a young woman coming to terms with a world as distant and frightening to her as the existence she has left in the land above...
For many years, Underland has been at the mercy of the tyrannical Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter), who is more fond of lopping off heads than giving her courtiers second chances. All hope for salvation from her violent reign has been lost and her younger sister (Anne Hathaway) has been banished to the far reaches of the kingdom, where she bides her time waiting for a champion. It appears in the form of nineteen year old Alice (Mia Wasikowska), a visitor from the real world. Alice was in the midst of a garden party and contending with an unwanted marriage proposal when out of the corner of her eye she caught sight of the White Rabbit and chased him down the rabbit hole. She has now wound up in a world in which flowers and animals talk, the contents of bottles make you bigger or smaller, and everyone seems convinced that she is there to fulfill some great destiny.
In the book that details the history of Underland from beginning to end, there is a girl named Alice who brings about the defeat of the evil queen. The White Rabbit is convinced she is the right Alice, but she is not so certain. There is not much time to consider it, for the queen has come after them and in the ensuing chaos, most of her friends are captured and taken back to the palace for interrogation. Alice must wander through Underland on her own, a journey that inevitably takes her to the tea party where the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) is waiting for her. Formerly one of the White Queen's most trusted companions, he wants nothing more than to see goodness and right restored to the realm. He, Alice, the Cheshire Cat, and a host of other talking creatures embark on a grand adventure to liberate Underland, risking their lives and sanity in the process.
If you have grown up not much caring for the original Disney film, you are in for a magnificent surprise. Everything that was delightful about the original has been reproduced here, but in the context of a much stronger storyline and improvements on the characters. It is a controversial move to take a much older Alice and throw her into the mist of "Underland," but it is a risk that pays off. She is no longer a child and so can become a warrior in her own right. It is fun to see her grow and shrink, to use her mind and cunning but also her compassion to win over various creatures to her cause, and inevitably become a genuine heroine. Newcomer Mia Wasikowska is a reasonable Alice; she seems to lack a bit of personality in the beginning but the audience grows accustomed to her and by the end she has more spunk. There is a delightful cast of supporting voices that include the talents of Alan Rickman and Michael Sheen, among others. Bonham-Carter is terrific as the ferocious and axe-happy queen, while Anne Hathaway is delicious as her overly cheerful sister, but the movie really does belong (once again) to Johnny Depp. He is a scene-stealer and the Hatter is a brilliant role for him.
Burton fans can expect an eclectic presentation that does not shy away from subtle tributes toward his previous works -- unusually shaped hedges, gnarled and twisted trees, and the occasional hints of morbid humor remind us that he's a director with a slightly demented side. It works very well in the context of this film, which features surreal landscapes and terrific costuming design. It begins as a sensible Victorian tale and spirals into a fantastic world of imagination and color, in which many of the actors have been digitally "tampered with" in order to make them appear odd. Hatter sports an enormous pair of eyes (they really do make him look a bit mad) and the Red Queen has a head that is about four sizes larger than it should be. The animated creatures are also wonderful, but lest you think this is a film appropriate for children, allow me to make a few cautions. The landscape, the queen's penchant for cutting off heads, and several frightening battles with vicious creatures are guaranteed to give little ones nightmares. There are also infrequent moments of gruesomeness -- such as when a mouse stabs another creature's eye out (eventually, it is returned to him and put back in), and Alice slices off the head of a dragon that is attempting to kill her. It bounces down a flight of stairs and lands in an unceremonious heap at the foot of is former owner. (She also cuts out its tongue earlier in their fight.) To reach the castle, she must also leap from one severed head floating in the mote to another.
Mild language intrudes on the part of the Cheshire Cat. There is no sensuality to speak of apart from a passionate kiss and the fact that Alice regularly grows or shrinks out of her clothes; everyone is careful to assist her in finding something to wear and the audience never sees anything inappropriate. Magic is referenced in subtle ways -- the prophecy is written into a scroll and foretells future events. Alice eats and drinks things that make her smaller and larger again. In order to shrink her to the right size, the White Queen puts together a potion that involves things like urine and pickled fingers. Blood is collected from the dragon head and given to her with the assurance that it will take her home again.
This story is a far cry from the original but does pay honorable tribute to a children's book that has inspired readers for generations. It delighted me more than I can say and without much effort, may become one of my favorite Victorian fairy tales.