Alice in Wonderland

Director: Tim Burton

Starring Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Michael Sheen, Johnny Depp, Alan Rickman

There was the book, Alice in Wonderland. This movie isn’t about that, so much. Then there was the book, Through The Looking Glass, and, What Alice Found There. This movie isn’t about that, so much, either.  Walt Disney somewhat combined the two with the 1951 animated film, Alice In Wonderland. Tim Burton’s Disney movie could almost be considered a sequel by me, to that film.  Burton does not consider it a sequel, or a re-imagining.  It is just an extension of the Jabberwocky poem.  Whatever.   The whole thing seems like a wacked-out mess, really.  But that’s alright.

So this movie starts with a 13 year old Alice telling her father about these recurring dreams she has of Wonderland.  Her father tells her to give herself a pinch whenever she feels she is in the dream, and she will pop right out of it.  Forward 6 years to a now 19 year old and fatherless Alice (beautifully and intelligently played by Wasikowska) facing an impending and assumed marriage to a gasbag.  Her sister’s husband is a slimeball, her mother is broke and desperate, everyone around her seems to not understand her.  This, of course, is very hard to believe in a Tim Burton film.  He never plays that card.

So, she follows the rabbit down the hole once more.  She falls seemingly forever once more.  Drinks potions to get smaller, eats cakes to get bigger, etc.  Along the way, several eccentric but all too familiar characters wonder aloud if she is “…the right Alice.”  Of course she is the right Alice, she says, as this is her dream.  She pinches herself.  She does not wake up.  Uh-oh…if she doesn’t get out of here soon, she will have to meet Johnny Depp in contacts and a crazy-ass wig.  Ugh…

So first she consults Absolem, who sounds an awful lot like a guy who had the “benefits of a classical education,” for a hookah-smoking caterpillar.  He decides that she is “not hardly Alice.”  Not hardly?  I can’t hardly guess what is going to happen here.

So, this is the point for her band of wacky animals and bugs to be dispersed by a Bandersnatch.  A lot of them are captured by the Red Queen.  Alice ends up getting even smaller, conveniently, to escape from the Knave of Hearts, who is played by Crispin Glover, suprisingly dressed in men’s clothing, for a change.  Helping her escape is the Mad Hatter an almost completely unrecognizable Depp, in the afore-mentioned wig and contacts.  Does it matter that I don’t remember the Mad Hatter this way?  Probably not, but I am sure that the movie being made by Burton and Depp was contingent upon letting them raid the wardrobe of Too Wong Foo.

So the Mad Hatter is sad.  The Mad Hatter is not dancing some irritatingly-named dance.  The Mad Hatter is somewhat mad, meaning angry, of course.  Why?  Because the set of Wonderland looks like it was borrowed, like the plot, from Return To Oz.  The last time I remember a movie opening this bleak was when David Fincher valiantly tried to rise above every major character except Ripley being killed or dissembled at the beginning of Alien3.  But that was not his fault.  He inherited a movie with 12 different screenplays molded into one.  Tim Burton only had Linda Woolverton working off of Lewis Carroll’s characters here.  He chose this “colorful” bleakness.  Whatever.

I hope you did not expect a picture of the Mad Hatter.

So the Red Queen is mean.  The Knave of Hearts, an opportunist.  Everyone kisses her butt, of course, and still she shouts “off with their heads!” way too often.  Bonham-Carter plays this role with relish.  Glover grovels a lot.  All the little animals wince accordingly.  No one loses their heads.

So, enough with the plot.   I would not want to give too much of that away.  Even though the rear-end of themovie is reduced to a wacky version of Braveheart, there is enough here to enjoy, if your sights are set on visuals and not depth of story and character.

So, for the characters, Mia Wasikowska gives Alice the right gravitas.  I get the feeling of her being on the edge of a dream, and never fully committing until necessary.  That is her job, though, along with showing decency.  Wasikowska, who is possibly the most intelligent looking beauty since Kate Winslet, looks like she could do some real damage with the right script.  Hathaway is delightfully vacant, playing the White Queen as well as I imagined it.  Depp is wasted here.  I get the feeling that they replaced the Mad Hatter from the stories and instead we get some sad Willy Wonka costume castoff who keeps threatening to go nuts, when the plot wavers.  But it is that feigned lunacy that gives the plot its weakest moments.  The Mad Hatter was just one of many characters in the books and movies.  Here he is pumped up, mainly to justify using Depp to draw in Depp fans.

So, last but not least, Tim Burton.  We have reached the stage where anything in movies can be made real with a camera attached to a pc.  This is no exception.  There are many amazing visuals here.  Foremost among them, The Chesire Cat.   A visual spectacle and an amazing character.  This is the linchpin for the movie.  All events hinge on its ambiguous involvement in the story.  And it is well played.  Absolutely seamless visually, and delightfully non-committal in portrayal.  Along with Alice, this is the best thing about the film.  Other animal characters are suitably humanized for the movie, presenting an odd dichotomy.  What happens when the animals seem more lifelike, or human, than the characters played by humans?  That’s right, you get a Star Wars prequel.  Fun, but not the right kind of fun.

So, all told, the movie is not bad.  Not great.  Sort of good.  If the movie seems a little short, it’s because the script gave out somewhere around the Mad Hatter’s escape.  It makes me wish Burton had been bound to a contract that gave him less access to script, but the same amount of visual spectacle.

(**1/2 out of *****)

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