I’m relieved to note that Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is not the disaster I was afraid it might be, based on the trailers. I’m less delighted to note that I didn’t find it to be the masterpiece I’d hoped for. It’s good. It’s very good—and there are flashes of greatness within it. I’m certainly glad I saw it, and I’ll see it again, but I’m not champing at the bit to arrange for a repeat viewing. Compared to the press screening of Burton’s Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), where I wanted to see the film again as soon as it ended, this is a letdown. Even more troublesome is the fact that for the first time in 20 years of Burton films (the 2001 Planet of the Apes to one side), I have not carried away a deep sense of the movie’s imagery. In fact, aspects of Alice have started evaporating like its own Cheshire Cat only a couple days later.
However, I’m giving the impression that I don’t like the film. I like it a lot, and I suspect I will grow to like it more. Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton have done a pretty incredible job of taking the two Lewis Carroll books (the movie combines Alice with Through the Looking Glass), retaining much of the essence, but giving the results a fresh, personal feeling. The film also offers things the books do not: an actual story line with a climax and some degree of emotional depth. On the second count, I’m perplexed by charges that Burton’s film has left out the books’ “heart” in favor of spectacle. What heart? What possible emotional resonance is to be gleaned from Carroll’s books? They’re fun, fantastic, funny and sharply satirical, but where is this “heart” of which the film’s detractors speak?
Rather than simply retell the original story, the film offers us a 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska, Amelia), a young lady with a history of strange dreams that seem to have followed her into adulthood. Alice finds herself unwillingly attending a garden party where—as she finds out at the last moment—she’s expected to accept a financially desirable marriage proposal from the highly undesirable Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill, Me and Orson Welles). This changes, however, when she keeps catching sight of the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) from her dreams, and proceeds to follow the White Rabbit into the woods while pondering Hamish’s embarrassingly public proposal.
The inevitable fall down the rabbit hole comes next—and Alice’s adventures in Wonderland, which is here called Underland. It turns out that the Rabbit deliberately brought her to Underland in the hope that she is the Alice, the Alice who had been there before and who, it’s believed, can help the White Queen (Anne Hathway) defeat the Jabberwocky (voiced very briefly by Christopher Lee), a dragon-like monster used by the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) to retain control of Underland. OK, this may not be the stuff of great drama, but it does provide a story arc with a climax, which the books lack. At worst, it’s serviceable. Yes, it has one particularly logic-defeating aspect in that telescoping the Queen of Hearts and the Red Queen into one character presents us with a chessboard showdown between white chess pieces and red playing cards, but since no actual showdown occurs, it perhaps doesn’t matter.
More to the point, the film manages to craft characters in whom we have some emotional investment. This is especially true of Alice and the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). Depp’s Hatter looks pretty tiresome in the trailers, but he’s something very different in the film—a kind of quirky, artistic freedom fighter, who is drifting into insanity and sadly realizes it. It’s actually a remarkable performance, even if his hopeless fixation on Alice has its roots in Edward Scissorhands (1990). At the same time, it touches lightly on the question of Lewis Carroll’s own fixation on the real-life Alice Liddel, which affords the film a subtext worth some degree of consideration. Other characters are also observed with more sympathy than the books afford—even the Red Queen, who is played by Helena Bonham Carter with a CGI-altered head that makes her resemble Bette Davis as Elizabeth I, re-envisioned as a monstrous infant. She may be perfidy incarnate, but the film is savvy enough to offer hints of the damaged child—rejected because of her looks—that spawned the monstrosity. Hey, it’s Burton.
Visually, Burton’s Alice is a stunner. Nevertheless, it oddly lacks the kind of single indelible images that I immediately knew I would always remember from most of Burton’s other movies. I grant only time will tell in this case. His use of 3-D is intelligent, but generally subdued, which is probably in the film’s favor. Though it raises the question (apart from the financial plus of those 3-D ticket surcharges) of why make it in 3-D at all. Ultimately, the movie is pure Burton—from its look that combines the fantastic with the fantastically decayed, to its inherent sympathy for the outsider. Perhaps the most interesting thing he brings to the story, however, is the sense of terror that creeps in around the edges of every sequence, starting with the fall down the rabbit hole. There is a sense of danger and of something deeply sinister clinging to the film—and that, I think, is just right. Rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar.