Lewis Carroll’s immortal story Alice in Wonderland has been brought to the big screen many times, notably 1951’s animated Disney classic. That’s an intimidating challenge, especially for Tim Burton, who generally tackles new stories that can be crafted in his own unique style.
It’s with relief I report that Alice in Wonderland is terrific. It’s the kind of story where Burton’s dark vision works perfectly, where the strange, moody and oft-sinister fantasy world Carroll described in the book can finally be brought to the big screen.
We first meet Alice in mid-1800s Victorian London as a young girl of 6 (played by Mairi Ella Challen) troubled by recurring dreams of rabbit holes, red queens, mad hatters and a little dormouse.
“It’s only a dream, nothing can harm you there” her father Charles (Marton Csokas) reassures her. Zoom forward 13 years and Alice is 19, traveling by coach to meet her paramour Lord Ascot (Tim Pigott-Smith in an entertainingly priggish role).
Alice is an independent young miss who earnestly wants to determine her own path in life and is more interested in her father’s business than any sort of soppy romantic entanglement with Ascot and his ghastly mother Lady Ascot (Geraldine James). Rather than answer his invitation to marry, Alice spots the waistcoated rabbit and follows.
“You’ve brought the wrong Alice!” we hear one creature tell the other as we peek through a keyhole and watch Alice drink the potion labeled “drink me” and try to figure out the puzzle of becoming small enough to go through the tiny door while still having the key that’s otherwise out of reach on the table far above her.
The visual effects are splendid and the film constantly toys with our sense of scale. At some points Alice is considerably smaller than Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas in both roles), while at other points she towers over them. In another scene, she’s small enough to ride on the brim of The Mad Hatter’s (Johnny Depp) hat, while in others she is much bigger than he is.
Alice quickly learns that the world of Underland is torn between the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter with a very swollen head) and the weird but ostensibly nice White Queen (Anne Hathaway). With her ephemeral guide the Cheshire Cat (voice of Stephen Fry) and champion The Mad Hatter (Depp), she travels through the dark, twisted world trying to avoid her destiny foretold, being the one to slay the terrifying Jabborwocky.
Mia Wasikowska did a splendid job as Alice, and Burton even tamed Depp. While the publicity machine emphasizes his crazy makeup as the Mad Hatter, he was relatively calm and didn’t at all overshadow the other players. The weak link was Anne Hathaway as the White Queen. She’s pretty, but she just can’t act.
I will warn parents that there are some intense scenes, particularly chase scenes and the climactic battle between Alice and the Jabborwocky, that could prove frightening to younger children. There’s also precious little that’s amusing or funny in the film, certainly too little for a children’s movie. You might want to screen the film yourself before you bring them along.
Near the end of the film, Alice crossly says, “Since the moment I fell down the rabbit hole, I’ve been told who to be and how to act, but I’m going to make my own path!” That’s exactly what Tim Burton has done with this wonderful and visually inventive retelling of the Alice in Wonderland story. Even though it’s a bit sterile, it’s still well worth seeing in the theater and will prove a great Blu-Ray purchase when it’s available for home viewing.