California Literary Review

Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland

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March 6th, 2010 at 1:03 pm

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Movie Poster: Alice in Wonderland
Alice in Wonderland

Directed by Tim Burton
Screenplay by Linda Woolverton
Based on the books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass by Lewis Carroll

Mad Hatter – Johnny Depp
Alice – Mia Wasikowska
Red Queen – Helena Bonham Carter
White Queen – Anne Hathaway
Stayne — Knave of Hearts – Crispin Glover

CLR Rating: ★★★½☆

Movie Still: The Crazies

Johnny Depp stars as The Mad Hatter in Alice in Wonderland
© Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved

A Visually Stunning Retelling of the Classic Tale

Tim Burton’s crooked, gnarled, dreamy sensibility has kept fans enraptured since he burst onto the scene in earnest with Batman in 1988. His stylistic tendencies have kept goth kids doling out their allowances at Hot Topic since the store took over malls some years ago. His career includes some missteps (Planet of the Apes), but considering he’s been in the business for forty years, the man’s resume is remarkable. In recent years he’s applied his personal brand of crazy to much beloved material like Roald Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the musical Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street. This weekend’s much-anticipated release Alice in Wonderland is perhaps the most dangerous literary territory on which he’s chosen to tread. Fortunately, Burton’s adaptation will leave fans of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass smiling, if not for its faithfulness to the stories, then at least for its sheer spectacle. The director has built his public persona as a Mad Hatter of sorts, so what better man for the task?

Alice (Mia Wasikowska), aged nineteen at the start of the film, is unwilling to follow the rules of Victorian society. Her mother chastises her for her lack of corset and stockings. Alice responds, “Who’s to say what is proper?” This independence and resistance to society’s limitations recurs throughout the film, lending one of the world’s most beloved fantasy protagonists the feel of a true heroine. In the midst of her rather humiliating engagement party, Alice spies the White Rabbit and follows him into the woods, leaving her beau under the gazebo on one knee. What follows is a visually magnificent journey into a fantasy world that mirrors Alice’s real life. She discovers a depreciated version of the Wonderland she visited as a child (though at first she doesn’t remember her previous trip): a world in which the Mad Hatter (frequent Burton collaborator Johnny Depp) is even madder than before, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has seized the crown from her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and turned the land to a barren, miserable reflection of its earlier splendor.

To restore Wonderland to its former grace, Alice must defeat the Red Queen’s Jabberwocky, a frightening dragonlike creature. The March Hare, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Dormouse, Cheshire Cat, and of course, the Caterpillar, undergo the Tim Burton treatment, and the results are fabulous. Depp’s Mad Hatter makeup is riveting. The Red Queen’s overlarge head (about which she’s self-conscious) adds a whole other dimension of strangeness. The visual effects are, in a word, awesome. The flora, fauna, and most importantly, inhabitants of Wonderland are perfectly rendered—it’s hard to look away. The movie’s pacing and editing are remarkable; it’s without a single slow moment.

Burton drew in a cast of, well, almost every A-list British actor you can think of. Stephen Fry, Christopher Lee, Timothy Spall, Imelda Staunton, Michael Sheen, and Alan Rickman lend their voices to the characters (half the cast is also in the Harry Potter series). Burton’s partner Bonham Carter, playing the Red Queen, said she was “inspired a bit by [the pair’s] toddler…Orders, orders, all the time. No pleases, no thank yous.” Indeed, the Red Queen is very like a petulant child, barking commands and mispronouncing her R’s. She’s neither scary nor does she inspire malice—really she’s laughable (so much so her rule over Wonderland feels odd). Hathaway’s White Queen is ethereal and balletic, and seems a bit mad at times. Crispin Glover, playing the Red Knight Stayne, has a queerly elongated physique, and along with the Red Queen’s large head, the effect is surreal and weird—but in a way in which you’ll find yourself blinking and squinting to make sure you’re seeing things just right. The overall result is a film whose characters are totally out of whack and completely fun to watch. Newcomer Wasikowska has the appropriate pallor and waiflike stature to be a Burton heroine; at times she uncannily resembles blond Winona Ryder in Edward Scissorhands. Wasikowska’s beautiful, deconstructed costumes in Wonderland are a lovely departure from the constricted confines of her clothing in the real world.

Burton takes a refreshingly feminist approach to the Victorian age, supplying villainesses rather than bad guys and a true heroine instead of a hero. Disney seems to be taking a proactive stance on creating great role models for young girls, and Alice, whether clad in rags or armor, is a paradigm for strength and independence. As she says, “I make the path.” The film ends as she sails away on an apprenticeship with the butterfly incarnation of the Caterpillar on her shoulder. The script is fluffy but entertaining. Danny Elfman, a constant Burton collaborator whose scores have the ability to elevate a good movie to a fantastic one, let the ship sail on this one; it’s not one of his best. Aside from beautiful effects and a strong protagonist, the movie doesn’t bring a lot to the “Alice” table, but for Burton fans it’ll be a treat nonetheless.

The mythology behind the Wonderland books is so complex, there are sure to be disappointed diehards, but Alice in Wonderland is a fun reinterpretation of the stories so many of us grew up reading and watching. It is easily the most visually impressive release since Avatar, and though it’s by no means Burton’s best movie, it is among his better ones. It’s genuinely difficult to look away from the screen, and there isn’t a single dull moment. It’s a fantastic way to while away a chilly winter evening, and it will be a great movie to watch again as the years go by.

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Alice in Wonderland Trailer

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