It’s always a scary proposition to tread on classics. Especially children’s films, which are viewed through the lenses of nostalgia and sentimentality. And so, one had to be a little worried about Tim Burton taking on the classic Alice in Wonderland in blockbuster fashion. And in moments, the fear is justified as the movie lapses into generic blockbuster fluff. But overall, Burton lets the oddness shine through. And his choice for Alice proves to be inspired. It doesn’t quite feel like it’s going to end up a classic, but it’s definitely worth following down the rabbit hole.
Alice Kingsley (Mia Wasikowska) has for years been haunted by dreams of her trip to Wonderland. Now 19, her mother is pushing her towards marriage with a nebbishy lord. But at the party where her suitor is meant to propose, she catches a glimpse of the White Rabbit. She runs off and follows it down the rabbit hole, and finds herself back in the magical world she visited as a child. But things are different: the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter) has harnessed the Jabberwocky in order to put everything under her thumb. The citizens of Underland look to Alice to save them, convinced that she is the only one who can slay the Jabberwocky. But Alice thinks it’s all a dream, and simply wishes to wake up.
Alice in Wonderland works best in its whimsical moments, when Alice is left to revel in the strangeness of the world. The plot that was shoehorned into the world, that of a prophecy that places the heroine in the middle of some inevitably CGI-heavy clash, feels too familiar and a little out of place. By the third act, the movie starts feeling a bit like a gothic Narnia sequel. Burton has never excelled at creating CGI action spectacles, and when the movie hits those requisite points, it loses some steam.
For the most part, though, Burton is happy to stick with the whimsy. Burton’s aesthetic is just perfect for the film, recalling the original John Tenniel artwork while still maintaining its own unique sensibilities. Whether you see it in two or three dimensions, the movie is simply spectacular to look at. Burton works on a theme of madness, highlighting the odd beauty that can only come from a mind that’s willing to accept impossible things. Whereas most films make a drive for sheer reality, Burton takes us the other way into severe unreality. And it’s utterly beautiful. A Danny Elfman score provides plenty of mood, although he makes a pretty corny choice in the last few moments of the film.
The real appeal of this film, however, is in its lead actress. Australian actress Mia Wasikowska is astonishing as Alice. It is probably enough that she manages to sound like the Alice of the old Disney cartoon, but she does a lot more than that. She conveys a sense that there’s always something bubbling underneath, a vast inner world that allows her character to look deeper than most. It was a risky choice to show us a much older Alice than the stories ever showed, but Wasikowska makes it a whole lot easier to accept. Johnny Depp performs well as the Mad Hatter, diving into Carroll’s nonsense poems with amazing aplomb. Fantastic voice work from Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman and Christopher Lee bring plenty of personality to the movie’s animated characters.
The conventional elements of Alice in Wonderland end up weighing it down, the demands of mainstream filmmaking adding blockbuster foolishness to a story that didn’t really need it. The film just isn’t as odd as it could be, though it’s plenty odd as it is. Though the film will probably not end up as beloved as the books or the original Disney cartoon, it still has plenty of spectacle, and a good amount of heart provided by a true revelation of a lead actress. If anything, Wasikowska’s performance is already worth the price of admission. Everything else is candy.