Burton’s eye gives “Alice” some wonder
The most important realizations about Disney’s new “Alice in Wonderland” are that this 3-D thing is not going away and that it is used to great effect in director Tim Burton’s take on the Lewis Carroll classic stories, and that purists be scorned, Linda Woolverton’s (“Beauty and the Beast”) script provides a solid, commercially viable screenplay for all the shenanigans.
Much like Disney’s “A Christmas Carol” last year, the visuals end up being the star, and Burton was the perfect choice here if that was the goal. But there’s more tenderness here too, the bittersweet melancholy that pervades Burton’s best work, as well as newcomer Mia Wasikowska as Alice (recalling a young Gwyneth Paltrow), who exudes some of that Scissorhands/Skellington torched-beauty, giving the film a grounded heroine who is strong but vulnerable.
In this version, it’s been 13 years since Alice first dreamed of falling down the rabbit hole. Her puffy, darkened eyes portend a lack of sleep and now at almost 20 years old a surprise engagement party is being thrown in her honor on a huge Victorian estate. She’s supposed to marry a Lord, a chinless prig, but the young Alice has as many doubts as she has nightmares. Escaping the party, she falls down the hole again and thus begins anew her journey. This time she must prove her mettle by rising up on frabjous day and slaying the Jabberwock-while in the process discovering her identity and inner-strength.
Alice’s constant re-sizing-one drink makes her small, one cake makes her tall-gives Burton the liberty to wreak delightful havoc on the dimensionality of every scene. The madcap characters pop in and out, voiced with a deliciously subversive tone by British actors such as Michael Sheen, (pocket watch-clutching rabbit) Stephen Fry, (Cheshire cat) and Alan Rickman (smoking-addicted, blue caterpillar). Helena Bonham Carter naturally stars in her husband’s production and she’s quite good as the huge-headed, beheading Red Queen, with Anne Hathaway as her nicer sister the White Queen, and Crispin Glover as the malicious Knave of Hearts. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter (think Elijah Wood meets Carrot Top with a Mike Myers on again/off again Scottish brogue) is getting all the publicity (the poster, the trailer etc.), but while entirely watchable, his lisping, tragicomic turn is not a scene stealing performance by any measure.
For better or for worse, it’s Burton’s imagination seamlessly mixing live actors with Carroll’s characters in a wondrous CGI-created landscape that keeps the proceedings lively, even if its’ not as blatantly humorous as we’d like. Perhaps the story is a bit of the “Wizard of Oz” and “Braveheart” by way of ‘Narnia,” but leave it for someone else to figure out Carroll’s political allegories and mathematical symbolism. Throw in terrific pacing (yes, it gets “curiouser and curiouser”) and a near perfect running time of 109 minutes and “Alice in Wonderland” is an impressive, entertaining film that should be seen in 3-D.
It is this year’s first truly memorable creation.
Rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar.