Okay, okay, we get the joke -- Tim Burton's remakes are overwrought, CGI-heavy and even more grim than the source material. But here's the thing: in his new film Alice in Wonderland, it actually works. The absurdities of Wonderland have been made less whimsical and more elaborately frightening and purposeful. CGI animals and disproportionate humans are appropriately nightmarish, and no creepier than Sammy Davis Jr. dressed as a caterpillar. And while accuracy to the source material is already of questionable importance when dealing with a psychedelic head-trip like Alice, Burton has seamlessly interwoven the events of both Alice books and created what is essentially a sequel, in the vein of Hook or Return to Oz.
The movie opens up with a 6-year-old Alice telling her father about a nightmare she had, clearly of Wonderland. Thirteen years later, she's a daydreaming, soft-spokenly rebellious teenager who's about to get married off to a duke, but she sees the White Rabbit and follows him and yadda yadda yadda. Greeted in Wonderland -- actually called Underland, which makes sense given it's down a rabbit hole -- Alice is thought to be the famous Alice who used to come here when she was a girl, returned to help defeat the Red Queen and slay the Jabberwock. Alice swears she's not the right Alice, but we've all seen The Matrix. Alice is "The One."
The film uses most of the famous characters (no Walrus or Carpenter) and all of the most familiar Alice bits (the bit with the growing cake and shrinking serum, the Mad Hatter's tea party, hedgehog-flamingo croquet). But the majority of the plot concerns Alice rediscovering her friendship with the Hatter and trying to get her hands on the Vorpal Sword, which she needs to slay the Jabberwock. But even as she flees the queen's troops, infiltrates her castle by scrambling across a moat full of chopped-off heads, and faces the frumiously kitten-like bandersnatch, she still resists her calling until the very end, even though it's pretty clearly prophesied. It would have been brave for Burton to have her ultimately refuse, but it would also have been a bummer of an ending. For now, rest assured that everybody gets a happy one, and there are only a few out-of-the-blue dance numbers to distract from your own enjoyment.
Mia Wasikowska does a fine job as Alice, and is a natural at looking concerned. Johnny Depp is more fun than I thought he'd be as the Mad Hatter and has an interesting take on "mad," giving in to drastic mood swings and slipping in and out of a Scottish John Wayne impersonation. Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen is wonderfully innocent and childlike, tantrums and all, and her oversized head is played for a lot of laughs. Her sister, the exiled White Queen, is actually slightly creepier, with Anne Hathaway's Galadriel look sullied by dark bushy eyebrows, bright red lips and a wicked sense of humor. And last but not least, Crispin Glover is the creepiest as the scarred, eyepatch-wearing, impossibly lanky Knave of Hearts -- watching him cross swords with Depp's Claymore-wielding Hatter in the final battle would have been surreal even if they weren't in costume. Great vocal performances by Stephen Fry (Cheshire Cat), Alan Rickman (Caterpillar), Matt Lucas (Tweedledee/Tweedledum) and Christopher Lee (Jabberwock) round out the acting, and all sound like they're having a devilishly good time.
The CGI is necessarily heavy in this movie, and while it doesn't all look totally realistic, c'mon -- this is Wonderland we're talking about. Just walking through the place is like living in a video game, so even if the talking animals, bandersnatches, Jabberwocks and big-headed and stretched-out thespians seem a little off, they still look pretty damn good, and even better in 3D. The Red Queen's rusty metal playing-card soldiers and chess-piece-headed troops of the White Queen's army are particularly nice, and the Cheshire Cat floats through the film like a cross-breed between the big-screen Garfield and My Neighbor Totoro. The charmingly off-putting "Chesh" is just one of the elements of the film that surpasses the animated Disney original -- the manic, cup-flinging March Hare is another. And the massive battle at the end, featuring all of those characters as well as the frightening Jabberwock, is a visual feast, without being too overwhelming. Bravo, Timmy-boy.
What did you think of Alice in Wonderland? All opinions must be given in rhyme.
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