Despite being considered a children’s classic there is an underlying darkness to the Lewis Carrol classics “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There”. This darkness is what has always drawn me to the stories and even the 1951 Disney animated feature had a strong hint of dark undertones which was why when I heard that Tim Burton would be directing a live action version my interest was piqued, after all if there is a director that knows dark, it is Tim Burton.
What I did not know going in to the film though was if it was going to be too dark for children. It turns out Disney had their hooks deep into Burton on this film and the result is something that I was able to take my six year old daughter to see. Some may view this as a bad thing and if you were expecting a full on Burton experience you may be disappointed however I personally found Burton’s restraint on this film to be its core strength. It is still dark, as dark as the original source material at least, but it never strays into full on darkness and keeps Wonderland wonderful.
Burton’s Alice takes place 13 years after the events of the aforementioned Disney cartoon. Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now a 19 year old woman. She is being courted by an English noble and pressure to marry is coming from every direction in her life. When formally asked to marry her “chosen” one she runs off begging for a moment to think. That moment has Alice heading down the rabbit hole yet again chasing after the white rabbit.
The basic story for Alice in Wonderland reminded me a lot of the 1991 Steven Spielberg film, Hook. As in Hook, Alice has been called back to save the land she held dear in her childhood but before she can set out on that adventure though she must first believe in herself to be able to do it. This journey of self discovery is a fantastical journey that is at times quite thrilling. Burton does an excellent job of pacing the film just right and there is nary a dull moment.
As Alice traverses Wonderland, she comes across many old friends including the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen), Tweedledee & Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and the blue caterpillar, Absolem (voiced by Alan Rickman). Depp as the Hatter is near perfect and nearly every time he is on screen he steals the spotlight with his over the top and full on mad portrayal of the crazy tea drinking hat maker. However someone who steals the spotlight every time they are on screen is the smoking caterpillar Absolem. Rickman is at his best and once again shows that he is one of the best actors (voice or otherwise) in the business.
Of course Alice is not just on a return trip to sight see through Wonderland, in fact since Alice has last been there the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has become even more oppressive. Personally I am not a fan of Carter, I feel she often times overacts her roles applying more flourish than is ever really necessary. However as the Red Queen she is stunning and seems to thrive on the absolute insanity that the role requires. On the other hand I am a very big fan of Anne Hathaway but her portrayal as the Red Queen’s counterbalance the White Queen just fell flat to me. Her character was dull and maybe it was by design but overall I just didn’t get it, fortunately she is never on screen by herself for more than a few moments and it never brings the film down any.
However as great as the acting in Alice in Wonderland tends to be the real star of this film is Burton’s take on Wonderland itself. Burton’s Wonderland, whether done by Burton himself or directed by Disney, is absolutely fantastical. It is every bit as wonderful as Disney’s original take on Carrol’s imaginary dreamscape. It is a visual tour-de-force and one that should be experienced on the big screen.
If there is anything holding me back from flat out recommending this film to everyone is that appreciating the original stories by Carrol, or at the very least Disney’s take on it, is a must. If you do not like Wonderland from previous experiences then this film is not going to make you a fan. However if you are a fan of the land and the previous works in that land then Alice in Wonderland is something extraordinarily special.
5 out of 5
Review Note: This was reviewed based on the 2D version of the film, not the 3D one.