After his darkly comic reinterpretations of classics such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Batman Forever, it’s no surprise that tickets sold out days in advance by audiences eager to witness Tim Burton’s take on Alice’s fall down the rabbit hole. His Alice in Wonderland is a quirky follow to Lewis Carroll’s original works, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, painting a much different and idiosyncratic take on the source material than the 1951 animated Disney classic. As with some of his previous films, taking on beloved classics offers a unique challenge that Burton more than meets. His darker and more complex take on Wonderland, or Underland as it is known in the film, is a vivid delight on the big-screen and in both two and three dimensions.
Linda Woolverton’s screenplay takes the audience 13 years beyond the end of the familiar story, with a now very grown-up Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) who is trying to cope with very adult pressures. Alice simultaneously tries to deal with the death of her father while fending off pressures from her mother (Lindsey Duncan) and sister (Jemma Powell) to tie the knot and secure her future with the pompous and upwardly mobile Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill). Unconventionally quirky and independent for staid Victorian times, Alice balks after Hamish pops the question at a garden party in front of hundreds of people. Claiming she needs time to think, Alice flees the scene to again follow a white rabbit in a waistcoat, and familiarly finds herself falling down a rabbit hole.
Alice finds herself unceremoniously deposited into the crazy world of Wonderland, which she has no memory of visiting years earlier. Underland has been taken over by the bulbous-headed Red Queen (played by Burton staple, Helena Bonham Carter) who loves chopping off heads as much as she loves tarts. Alice is gradually reintroduced to all of Underland’s most colorful characters, including Johnny Depp’s nuclear orange-haired Mad Hatter, Absolem the Caterpillar, (voice by the always droll Alan Rickman) and The White Queen (Anne Hathoway). Other big names entail, Crispin Clover as The Knave of Hearts, and fantasy film antagonist Christopher Lee as the voice of Jabberwocky. This looney and unlikely band of characters team up to end help end the Red Queens reign of terror and reestablish The White Queen to her rightful place. Depp, as he is wont to do, outshines most of the cast. Like Jack Sparrow, he has created an unforgettable character in the whimsically strange Mad Hatter.
The flick has many aspects that are commendably impressive, from the haunting soundtrack by Danny Elfman and highly imaginative and modern costumes by Colleen Atwood, to the presence of a strong cast. However it’s the set design and the visual effects that Burton’s Alice really bedazzles and renders the hand-animated classic obsolete. Filmed in two dimensions, the movie is a terrific example of how to do 3-D animation without overwhelming audiences. The scenic Underland’s green and purple-tinged forest envelops instead of overpowering, with bright and colorful creatures and flowers that dazzle without distracting. Unlike recent 3-D extravaganza Avatar, it manages to deliver an orgy of visual delight without sacrificing a meaningful plot and witty, not wooden, dialogue. As with most of Burton and Depp’s work, and its original source, it celebrates the weird and wonderful, and encourages a healthly dose of madness and belief in the impossible – even if that impossible does include a grinning cat and the terrifying Jabberwocky. Considering the presence of decapitated heads and said Jabberwocky, this version of the children’s classic might not be for the especially young. But for the young at heart, Burton’s sinister yet warm interpretation achieves the closest to Carroll’s original take yet. If you want to see how 3-D and computer imagery can enhance a timeless tale of discovery, this is the movie to see. Just don’t stick around long enough to hear the theme song in the credits by lack-luster pop princess Avril Lavigne. On screen, Wonderland trumps Pandora.
Alice in Wonderland is rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar. 108 min.