ALICE IN WONDERLAND Review: Burton reigns it in with classic material and a perfect cast…

Alice sweet Alice, how many times will you find yourself in a movie?  Once again the Lewis Carroll classic gets a cinematic adaptation, this time no expense is spared.  But is the Tim Burton bent the right direction?

The answer is YES!  I thoroughly enjoyed the Burton’s vision that viewers will learn is tweaked but not too much so, is dark but not too dark, and is funny with a great, big, bulbous royal head.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND starts in the real world.  We meet Alice as a 5 or 6 year old.  Her father is in the middle of an important and visionary business pitch only to be interrupted by Alice, who has just awaken from a troubling dream.  Lovingly, her father leaves the meeting to comfort his little girl.  While putting her to bed, he playfully confirms that she has gone a bit mad, but he explains, all the best people are.  This scene is impressively mounted in a lush but concrete world later to be in stark contrast to the rich tapestry of fantasy that is to follow.

Some 13 years pass and Alice (now played by Mia Wasikowska) is on the road–late to a very important date.  Her mother is frustrated by Alice’s refusal to wear the traditional but uncomfortable corset.  But her mother knows that Alice marches to her own drummer, like her father before her, who has since passed away.  Once at the event, Alice learns that an impetuous and obnoxious Lord intends to ask for her hand in marriage.  Love has nothing at all to do with it.  But when Alice takes particular notice of a rabbit in a waistcoat rummaging through the garden, she must investigate even if that means that the Lord has to hold his horses.  Down that famous rabbit hole awaits!

One of Tim Burton’s most accessible films to date, ALICE IN WONDERLAND is a family friendly adaptation whose central metaphor concerns free will.  The casting is perfect headed literally by Helena Bonham Carter as the infamous Red Queen.  After a bit of adjustment, Carter’s acting talents shine through, even under all that make up and explosive animated head.

I suspect that the form of animation employed to fashion the Red Queen’s head uses some kind of motion capture most typified by best picture shoe-in AVATAR.  But unlike that Cameron juggernaut, Burton’s film is fantastic in narrative granting the animation team great license to take liberties with the environment and characters.  And the story itself has fun with this motif, Alice questions whether it is all a dream, even beckoning the mouse to stick her with a needle.  But when that needle makes Alice yelp, the viewer like Alice accepts that the fantastic is real.  I let myself give into it wholly, without question, perhaps because after seeing AVATAR twice, I accept this form of story-telling without too much cynicism.  And given AVATAR’s great success, I expect that audiences have been similarly tenderized.

Johnny Depp plays the Mad Hatter with the kind of insanity we’ve come to love.  Burton’s relationship with Depp points up how important it is for filmmakers to align themselves with great acting talent.  Like Herzog/Kinski it is a matching that produces interesting and often significant results.  What I liked about Depp’s performance was the tragic side he brought to the character.  Depp as the Hatter, is not animated from what I can tell.  His characterization does benefit from great make-up and wardrobe techniques (from Colleen Atwood, of course) including a marvelous top hat that gets a lot of mileage.  There’s depth to the role, especially as the Hatter becomes more and more stressed.  And his crazed manner ironically seems almost sane amid Burton’s vision of Wonderland.

Burton’s mastery of his style can become a bit indulgent, but ALICE seems as though he’s reigning it all in.  And this is a good thing.  The darker elements shouldn’t trouble young viewers and the message, especially for girls, is sound and inspirational.  I felt as though the source material, which I’m only cursorily familiar with the specific details of, may have been a little limiting, which makes Burton’s adaptation of it, from a script by Linda Woolverton, go for the big finale involving the requisite amount of action.

The film’s resolve was a bit too simple, if also a little of a let-down.  A dance sequence to what could only be described as “disco” music seemed to be out of place and almost a tone killer.  But the film’s final denouement left me wanting to see more, especially from Mia Wasikowska whose Alice is the rock upon which Burton’s able to work his fantastic magic.  Going back through the looking glass might be in the cards.

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