Sometimes, a film borders on the brilliant. There are reasons its genius cannot be easily grasped or readily appreciated – and usually, those excuses lie directly within the celluloid itself. Such is the case with Tim Burton’s trek down Lewis Carroll’s famous rabbit hole. His Alice in Wonderland isn’t so much an adaptation as one of those often confounding “reimaginings” where classic characters and the standard storyline is mutated to fit a new vision or modern mindset. Here, our heroine is no longer a bored little sprite eager to visit a place filled with magic and mystery. Instead, she’s a disgruntled Victorian teen desperate to break free of the strict societal mandates being placed on her.
This updated Alice (played with requisite passivity by Mia Wasikowska) is being set up to marry the morbidly dull nobleman Hamish. During the garden party proposal, our heroine balks, uneasy about such strict gender standards. Catching a glimpse of a rabbit in a waistcoat (similar to one in her recurring dreams), she strays from the gathering and soon falls down a dark and endless hole. When she awakens, she discovers that she is locked in a tiny room, a bottle labeled “Drink Me” sitting on a nearby table…
Once again, Alice is in Wonderland (though we learn it is actually called “Underland”) and after a trial and error exercise in escape, she is immediately surrounded by seemingly familiar faces – Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse), the hookah smoking caterpillar Absalom (Alan Rickman), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), and the quite insane Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). They all remember her quite well. She has no memory of them at all. Still, they hope she will take up the cause of championing the White Queen (Anne Hathaway).
As the rightful ruler of the now decimated kingdom, she is in a power struggle with her despotic sister the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Thanks to her faithful servant Stayne, The Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), the wicked ruler has managed a cruel stranglehold over everyone. What Wonder/Underland needs now is someone to defeat the Red Queen’s chief enforcer – the wicked winged Jabberwocky – and Alice appears to be the answer…that is, if she can be convinced to do so.
If eye candy had any cinematic health benefits, Tim Burton’s work on Alice in Wonderland would be a massive fountain of youth spouting mega-vitamin. All the talk about this filmmaker’s vision and sense of imagination comes across in every fully realized frame, ideas and creative conceits bouncing off each other like crazy companions at a literary tea party. From the look of Wonder/Underland – simultaneously alive while being burnt down and overgrown – to his take on Carroll’s iconic creatures, nothing about this Alice is typical. Instead, Burton expands our understanding of what this material means, of how madness derives from personal loss, or why certain individuals hold decapitation-oriented grudges. Certainly not everything works, and there are times when you wish Linda Wolverton’s sloppy script captured some of Carroll’s lunatic poetry, but when you’ve got astonishing optical wonders like these, do you really need natty nonsense rhymes?
There’s a keen sense of familiarity at play, of an artist indulging in elements he is wholly familiar with. Tweedledum and Tweedledee may look like funky flesh balls, but actor Matt Lucas gives them a loveable lameness that’s hard to ignore. Similarly, Frye and Rickman more than deliver in their voice-only efforts for the Cheshire Cat and Absalom, respectively. They are so good in fact that we wish there was more of each in the narrative. Certainly, the monsters have a tactile-less CG quality to their movement, and Crispin Glover just looks silly as a seven foot tall attendant to her raving royal Majesty. Speaking of Bonham Carter, she’s decent here, but not truly villainous. Instead, she comes off as sad and rather pathetic, no amount of screamed scenery chewing convincing us of her proposed evil ways.
That just leaves Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, and his is a very interesting turn indeed. Instead of being crazed or unhinged, the post-modern matinee idol decides to get lost in the dementia, taking the audience along for the brazen, sometimes bittersweet ride. There are times when Depp, eyes encased in huge saucer-like contacts, seems positively crushed by what’s happened to his homeland. Luckily, there are other moments (as when he’s back designing hats for the Red Queen) where the energy we expect from the character comes careening through. Though his look is one of the art design’s weaker extrapolations (does he have to come off as a combination mime and reprobate member of Cirque du Soliel?), everything the man beneath the mask does is delightful.
Of course, the real idol here is Burton, a director who’s made a mint off of being misunderstood, geeky, and outré-outrageous. When you break Wolverton’s script down into its individual beats, it’s not long before you marvel at what the finicky filmmaker has made out of it. The opening celebration is so cold and charmless that it literally lacks color, while almost everything associated with the White Queen is equally unexceptional. This appears to be planned in advance, the better to mark the startling differences throughout the rest of the film’s frenzied landscape. Elsewhere, Burton also seems set on reliving his greatest hits, familiar facets of Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, and even Sweeny Todd sneaking into the mix.
The result is a feast for the mind, if not necessarily the intellect. The updated Alice herself has an emotional arc drawn straight out of any frilly fantasy epic (it’s all about destiny and being true to yourself, you know) and the rest of the cast does little except serve said storyline. But if you’re going to turn Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland into something akin to Dungeons and Dragons ala Dodgson, it would be nice if your narrative was as knotty and imaginative as the man behind the lens. Sadly, everything about the plotting here is derivative and dull. Without Burton composing the shots, this Alice would be awful. Now, it’s a near masterpiece, lacking just enough focus to keep it from being a 100% complete success.