Paul Whitehouse

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland. There’ll be no malice from this end because we’re a far cry from Blunderland.  Still, despite its visual inventiveness, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland lacks the exuberance of his best films or the splendid, bracing nonsensicalness of the source material.   It’s a sequel of sorts to the whimsically absurdist Lewis Carroll children’s stories, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and Through the Looking Glass (1871) from one of our most fascinating and creative directors. And one who seems perfectly suited to the material, which has been adapted for the screen a couple dozen times, in versions live-action and animated and everything in between. Alice in Wonderland is an eye-popping, CGI-enhanced, 3-D, surrealist extravaganza and family adventure fantasy that tweaks the form while remaining true to the spirit of Carroll’s vision. Mia Wasikowska plays Alice Kingsleigh, a conflicted nineteen-year-old, plagued by bad dreams and about to reluctantly embark on a marriage arranged by her widowed mother. She takes another tumble down into the underland realm she remembers as Wonderland for the first time since she, as a young girl, followed a white rabbit (Michael Sheen) down the rabbit hole into the magically surreal queendom. So, she discovers, it wasn’t just a dream.  This trip the bride-to-be learns that, to restore order to this strange and wondrous place, she must slay a fearsome dragon, and thus free Wonderland by ending the reign of terror of the despotic and dyspeptic Red Queen, played by Helena Bonham Carter (and having more fun than anybody on-screen or in the audience), who has seized power from her sister, the kindly White Queen, played by Anne Hathaway.  So Alice turns for help to Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter — a literally colorful (green eyes, orange hair, and rainbow skin tones) split personality who’s, well, mad as a hatter — and the array of Wonderland creatures, including the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas and Matt Lucas), the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse), Bayard the Bloodhound (Timothy Spall), and Absolem the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman). And not only does she come up against the imposing and big-headed Red Queen, she also has to deal with the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) and the dragon Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee). Burton (Batman, Beetlejuice, Big Fish, Planet of the Apes), twisting perspectives into three kinds of pretzels, works from a female-empowerment screenplay by Linda Woolverton that provides an emotional underpinning and a fluid narrative so that the story is more than just Alice serving as a tour guide as she wanders through a succession of bizarre encounters. Ironically, however, the who-needs-a-plot charm of the quirky original stories, dominated by arbitrary dream logic rather than common sense, gets somewhat compromised as the film becomes formulaically shapely. We wish the film would get “curiouser and curioser,” but it does just the opposite as it builds to its conventional climax. As has been true of many of Burton’s movies, the memorability and impact of the set pieces is stronger than the dramatic arc and narrative continuity. That is, we’re more wide-eyed and enthralled than emotionally invested. So we end up watching the visually splendiforous AIW and admiring its merits without quite tumbling down the rabbit hole ourselves. Pity. Whether it was a good idea to make Alice a savior on a heroic quest — something we’ve probably seen far too much of on the movie screen in recent years — is one question. Regardless of the answer, however, the superb Mia Wasikovska brings shades of sweetness and strength to her performance, lending Victorian-era heroine Alice three-dimensional life, handling her character’s learning curve with aplomb, and alerting us to this young Australian actress’s vast potential.  Burton’s seventh collaboration with Depp (including Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood, Sweeney Todd, and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) finds Depp uncharacteristically unfocused. Burton finds plenty — too much actually — for the Mad Hatter to do so that Depp avoids the sidelines, but whatever commercial wisdom is being applied, the Hatter’s ubiquitousness is not really dramatically justified. Tim Burton’s moderately bewitching gothic fantasy, Alice in Wonderland, doesn’t fall into a rabbit hole, but does fall a bit short of wonderful.

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