Alice in Wonderland

Walt Disney Studios. Out March 4, 2010. Starring: Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham-Carter, and Crispin Glover. Directed by Tim Burton.
Rated PG (Fantasy violence and scary scenes). 108 min.

This is an iconic fairy-tale brought fancifully to the screen by Tim Burton.  Many versions of Alice’s adventures have been brought to the screen before. Burton, however, has a pocket piece of imagination especially set apart for him, and he brings his unusual  style to the filming of a story loved and known by all.  The film combines Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” with his “Through the looking-glass” and mixes together live action and animation. The fit with Burton is not perfect. Although this is not his best film, and the movie is a little disappointing overall, there are clear moments of imaginative brilliance.

Alice Kingsley (Mia Wasikowska, who is an Australian, Canberra-born actress) attends a planned engagement party for her after the death of her beloved father. At the party, she sees a white rabbit talking to itself, wearing a waistcoat and holding onto a pocket watch. She pursues him through a maze and falls down a hole in the ground. At the end of the hole is a locked door that leads to a world, which is now much more barren than the way she found it as a young child many years before. She drinks and eats to change her size and fits through the door to find herself in Wonderland populated by familiar creatures such as the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, the March Hare, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Alice is expected to slay the Jabberwock, which is the dragon terrorizing the inhabitants of Wonderland under the reign of Iracebeth (Helena Bonham-Carter), the mean Red Queen. Johnny Depp energetically plays the role of the Mad Hatter, and he helps Alice, who is initially reluctant to take on the task of slaying the Red Queen’s dragon. Anne Hathaway is the White Queen, who aspires to the throne. She is attracted by the dark side, being the sister of the Red Queen, but tries to make everything bright, cheerful and looking happy. Eventually, after incredible adventures, the dragon is slain, and Alice steps out of her dream to return to the world of reality as a more mature person.

The film is about a series of incidents that involve Alice, but the movie also is a story about Alice discovering who she really is, and taking control of her life. Like Cameron’s “Avatar”, this film is best seen in 3-D, which is clearly what Burton intends; currently, it shows in both 2-D and 3-D versions. The imaginative props in the movie, when live action is employed, are eye-catching and the clothes and wigs of Carroll’s characters are amazingly quirky and fanciful. The talents of Colleen Atwood as costume designer are especially well used, except for some awful costuming of Alice. The result is a visual spectacle that tries, a little erratically, to capture Burton’s unique style. Colours abound (even more than in Burton’s “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), body proportions (such as the Red Queen’s head), are way out of kilter, and all the characters behave oddly, adding to the impact of who they are and what they do in Carroll’s original stories. The film is outrageously whimsical, but Burton  is dark and he decides to pursue popular taste by mimicking other spectacle adventure films that typically conclude by vigorous battle scenes between the warring factions. In the end, the slaying of the dragon becomes a surprisingly clumsy affair.

This is an enjoyable film that pays reasonable reverence to Carroll’s stories. It is well directed and well acted, especially by Bonham-Carter as the Red Queen. The film’s classification warns that some scenes are scary, but Burton has never directed a movie where that was not so. Many scenes are dark and weird and will worry young children. Parents should accompany their children to the movie so that they can monitor the effects on their children of what they see and think.

Carroll’s books are funny and inventive, and Burton adds to those qualities by giving us a film that stamps Carroll’s work in his own inimitable way. Carroll’s crazy characters are even crazier in this movie, and the film shows Burton’s darkly-inspired creativity at work almost all of the time.  

Walt Disney Studios. Out March 4, 2010

Peter W. Sheehan is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.


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