Alice in Wonderland (2010) / Fantasy-Adventure
MPAA Rated: PG for violence and smoking
Running Time: 108 min.
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry (voice), Michael Sheen (voice), Alan Rickman (voice)
Cameo: Imelda Staunton (voice), Michael Gough (voice), Christopher Lee (voice)
Director: Tim Burton
Screenplay: Linda Woolverton (based on the Lewis Carroll books, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass")
Director Tim Burton (Sweeney Todd, Corpse Bride) teams up with Disney scribe Linda Woolverton (The Lion King, Homeward Bound) in a visual tour-de-force telling of the classic story, which combines elements of the two Lewis Carroll allegories, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and its sequel, "Through the Looking Glass," injected into what is ostensibly a semi-sequel to the story. But, as with many Tim Burton features, the visuals are the best part in what turns out to be a muddled storyline that tosses madcap characters in front of the screen with little rooting interest in them or their plights. Burton continues his more recent tradition of taking the imaginative works of others and putting his own creative stamp on them, which has drawn him both criticism and praise for the end results. Art design take the forefront, and darkly comical characters inhabit the story underneath, making Alice very much a typical Burton film, regardless of its source material.
Mia Wasikowska (Defiance, Amelia) stars as Alice Kingsley, in her late teens, on the verge of possible acceptance of a marriage proposal, deciding spontaneously to follow the trail of a party-crashing White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen, Frost/Nixon), leading her to fall down a large and deep hole. Where she emerges is a place called Underland, where anthropomorphic animals and some rather odd humans reside -- a land she is convinced that is merely another one of her fanciful dreams. The land is threatened by the powerful Red Queen (Carter, Terminator: Salvation), whose vanity about her rather large head makes her take no pity about those who lose theirs when they cause her displeasure. A fabled scroll foretells a woman named Alice saving the land from the Queen's main trump card, a dragon-beast called Jabberwocky, but Alice may not be the same as the one of prophecy to restore the goodly sister White Queen (Hathaway, Get Smart) back in control, or so most assert. But only most, as the Mad Hatter (Depp, POTC: At World's End), who seems to know Alice from a previous visit that she can't remember, is sure this is the Alice of legend, and assists her in a quest to find the weapon to slay the Jabberwocky while eluding the following minions of the Red Queen.
At the heart of this telling of Alice is a young woman who, through the guidance of her mostly absent, adventurous father, continuously bucks the system of what's expected to make her own decisions in life -- whether good or bad, they are hers to make. A relative unknown, Mia Wasikowska, does a fine job in the lead role, translating that wide-eyed enthusiasm for starring in a major motion picture to that same exuberance and fascination to the equally mesmerizing surroundings of Underland, which Alice has dubbed 'Wonderland.' And, as the only normal character, our ability to indentify with her is a main ingredient to the story's success, so credit is given to her selection. If there is a downside, it's the way her role is written, as we never really sense much palpable transformation between the naive Alice who falls down the hole and the sword-wielding warrior at the end, except in their attire. The only thing resolved in her mind is that she prefers her father's thirst for adventure to her mother's way of living up to societal expectations.
However, even with attention to Alice's casting, this is really the sort of film built for the zany character actors that frequently are at the forefront of a Burton film to dominate. Burton scenery-chewing regulars Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter and Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen are the most memorable, and while they don't perform in any manner we aren't already accustomed to seeing from them, they do enliven their characterizations with the requisite comic appeal to keep them from being distancing to the viewer, even if the reasons for their behavior aren't always clearly defined. Crispin Glover (Beowulf, Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle) offers his Knave of Hearts character, the Queen's right hand man, with the angular creepiness he so often personifies. The animated characters are equally recognizable talents, though these characterizations aren't as dominant, even if they are ever present.
A dazzling treat for the eyes, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland merits a viewing for some stunningly realized escapist entertainment, albeit with the downside of Burton's penchant for making the characters' external appeal more defined than anything they might have going on inside their minds or hearts. It's a fresh enough take, and interestingly presented, and yet it never compels the viewer to excitement the way Burton labors to do. In a modern cinematic landscape where CGI worlds full of anthropomorphic creatures dominate, the majesty and imaginative appeal of Alice's adventures seem too familiar, and dare I say, mundane. In short, it's akin to Chronicles of Narnia with better visuals.
These days, it takes more than just fanciful, well-rendered creatures to make us feel the fantastic nature of them, especially when they are introduced with so little fanfare. It's arresting visually while it plays, but it's a rare occurrence when there's any genuine wonder brought to Wonderland.
©2010 Vince Leo