Alice in Wonderland: Burton and Carroll, Together at LastBy Frederik Sisa @ 4:00 PM March 12, 2010
As far as Tim Burton fans were concerned, there might as well have been a little white rabbit in a waistcoat wearing Mickey Mouse ears running around the director exclaiming, “You’re late, you’re late!” And so it seems that this pairing of the visionary Burton and Lewis Carroll’s classic fantasia was a long time coming. At last, the moment to fall down the rabbit hole has arrived. This may not be the definitive cinematic Alice, if such a beast is even possible, but we are nonetheless well-treated to an imaginatively realized Wonderland sumptuously filtered through Burton from the pages of the original books and Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations.
This latest version of Alice in Wonderland, a sequel set 13 years after the books, offers a glimpse into the last struggle of a nineteen-year-old young lady’s coming-of-age tale, in which she must decide her place in the world. With the memory of a deceased father looming over her and her mother, the socially correct option is to marry Hamish, a young, prissy Lord whose easily upset stomach is cause for a mother-in-law’s pre-emptive call for marital attention. The setup is much like those literary adaptations on Masterpiece Theatre, until an ambush proposal sends Alice on a run to collect her thoughts and, while she’s at it, chase a white rabbit with a pocketwatch in his paws. Thus begins her journey in a Wonderland much changed from her last visit.
From this premise Burton and scriptwriter Linda Woolverton offer a story that is, arguably, the film’s weakest element. Yet it wisely avoids trying to recreate the dreamlike non-sequiturs that give the books their enchantment but would potentially relegate the film to the fringe status of art house curiosity. The story serves a briskly-paced adventure in which Alice’s Wonderland journey does double duty as allegory for the decision she must make in the world of Britain’s high society. Relatively unknown Mia Wasikowska, with her classic beauty and intelligence, projects a sympathetic blend of naïveté and iron determination, catching Alice right at that liminal moment between childhood and adulthood, and playing the part of heroine with grace. Like Burton, we can see a promising acting career ahead of her just as she charms us to follow her along.
Surrounding Wasikowska is a superlative cast of actors and voice-actors, including Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman, who imbue their characters with much vigour and personality. Surely no one could object to Burton’s choice for the voice of the Jabberwocky. But the media question du jour is, how does Johnny Depp fare? The bar is set to Jack Sparrow, whose outlandish character arguably is successful precisely because Johnny Depp plays him against characters played straight with only Geoffrey Rush’s deliciously chewy Captain Barbossa to push back. In a film filled with Wonderland characters each as giddily weird as the next, singling out the Mad Hatter for scene-stealing misses the point. Depp offers a unique and thoroughly enjoyable Mad Hatter prone to a Scottish accent when angry – an accent outdone only by Paul Whitehouse’s impressively loopy March Hare – that is notable not so much for outrageousness on the level of other Wonderland crazies but for a tender relationship with Alice. While Helena Bonham Carter, digitally altered to sport a comically huge head, struts around gloriously as an angry Red Queen with a surprising soft spot for Glover’s edgy and underhand Knave of Hearts, and other memorables pop in and out with satisfying theatricality, Depp and Wasikowska ground the film in something more than flair.
All this delightful hullaballoo is presented, of course, with nods to Disney’s past efforts with Alice, as well as dips into Burton’s personal iconography – note the ubiquitous windmill in the tea party scenes. Also present are those macabre little details, like a moat filled with severed heads Alice must use as stepping stones to get across, that remind us that while Burton may be accessible, he isn’t without a playfully wicked side. Equal to his visual imagination is his ability to straddle the sentimental and the savage in a way that satisfies without evoking the phony feeling of formula, a key Burton trait that saturates his films with a mood at once wonderful and wistful. Throughout a Wonderland with castles equal in architectural detail to the Hogwarts from any Potter film, tricked-out landscapes, and a dazzling costume cornucopia – food for a cineaste’s hedonism – we also find a strain of hurt. The playing cards, once funny little game pieces with heads and limbs, are now better armoured than Roman soldiers or medieval knights. Consequences of the Red Queen’s ascendancy to ruling Wonderland include a cindering wasteland where the White Queen once held court. Look closely in the moat; the fate of a character from the books is revealed with tragic poetry. This is not a child’s Wonderland anymore, and from this comes the overarching struggle between the Red Queen and the White Queen, portrayed by Anne Hathaway as a benevolent but warped sibling to Liv Tyler’s Lord of the Rings elf. The whole film inevitably climaxes with a battle that plays to the rather obvious metaphor of inner conflict, and Burton realizes it with a restrained grandeur. Looking very much like Joan of Arc, Wasikowska is certainly fierce and brave as Alice comes into her own. Is it necessary, however, to draw on warfare as a stand-in for psychology?
Given Carroll’s love of words and logic, one can’t help but feel that relying on action instead of words and philosophy is a bit of a cop-out. But what the film lacks in literary sensibility it makes up for in excitement and nuanced emotion, the flaws glossed over in the overall magic of the film.
Entertainment: ** (out of two)
Craft: ** (out of two)
Directed by Tim Burton. Written by Linda Woolverton, based on the books Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway and Crispin Glover, with the voices of Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry and Timothy Spall. 108 minutes. Rated PG (for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and a smoking caterpillar).
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