Thursday, March 11, 2010

Alice In Wonderland / *** (PG)

Alice: Mia Wasikowska
Mad Hatter: Johnny Depp
Red Queen: Helena Bonham Carter
Stayne–Knave of Hearts: Crispin Glover
White Queen: Anne Hathaway
Tweedledum/Tweedledee: Matt Lucas

With the voices of:
Cheshire Cat: Stephen Fry
White Rabbit: Michael Sheen
Blue Caterpillar: Alan Rickman
Dormouse: Barbara Windsor
Bayard: Timothy Spall
Jabberwocky: Christopher Lee

Walt Disney Pictures presents a film directed by Tim Burton. Written by Linda Woolverton. Based on the books “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” by Lewis Carroll. Running time: 108 min. Rated PG (for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar).

I’m sitting here trying to decide from which direction to come at this movie. People—critics and fans—are saying “Alice in Wonderland” is the perfect fit for director Tim Burton. Others are saying that the ending is formulaic and makes this a fairly generic flick for Burton. Both of these statements are correct, but I suspect these experts on Burton’s career and films are missing the point of what a movie like “Alice in Wonderland” is about.

Yes, it is the story of an oddball misfit who finds herself in a world where the word ‘misfit’ is an understatement, just what Burton has been ordering up since “Pee Wee’s Big Adventure”. Yes, it is also a 3D and CGI extravaganza of good versus evil that succumbs to the cliché of the big final battle, just what Disney ordered up when they decided join the reboot business of producing this remake/sequel to their animated classic. Does Tim Burton relinquish his credibility and artistic integrity to make such a venture for the House of Mouse? No, he does his job and delivers.

“Alice in Wonderland” is pure—possibly drug-enhanced—entertainment. It isn’t deep, but it’s fun; and Burton’s version of Wonderland is genuinely imaginative in a way only Burton can be. Once again we follow Alice down that rabbit hole, only this time Alice is grown up and escaping the banality of an arranged marriage in an aristocratic society. Once in Wonderland, or Underland as its inhabitants are so anxious to correct for Alice, she finds she doesn’t remember being there before, but instead believes it’s one of her recurring childhood dreams. Because of her age and her belief it’s all a dream, the inhabitants question whether or not she’s the real Alice. This is a problem because they need Alice to take up the vorpal sword against the Red Queen’s champion, The Jabberwocky, and restore the White Queen to power.

The Red Queen, as portrayed by Helena Bonham Carter (“Sweeney Todd”), is a CGI enhanced, large-headed monster of a ruler, who screams “Off with their heads!” at the slightest hint of dissention. Many critics are saying Carter steals the show; but the show itself is such a spectacle, it’s hard to say any one point of the star is shinier than another. Johnny Depp (“Sleepy Hollow”) also sparks and flashes as the Mad Hatter, alternating between a fairly meek and fragile personality and another dark warrior figure who doesn’t seem to fit well in the Hatter’s clothing, but Depp pulls it off with a commanding brogue.

Fittingly, it’s Mia Wasikowska (HBO’s “In Treatment”) who turns in the most impressive performance as Alice. The role is a challenge, since Alice is somewhat of a blank slate at the start of the film, not really knowing quite who she is for all the control other people seem to have over her life. Ironically, it is her destiny—a fate over which she has no control—in Underland that helps her find her own voice and strength.

Yet, depth of character and story are not really what “Wonderland” is about. It’s a visual smorgasbord, a world that you’d almost rather explore for yourself than follow its storyline. Burton has always had a strong visual sense for creating fantastical and whimsical images and worlds. Here it’s his primary purpose. While that may not please some of his critics who want him to imbue more than whimsy into this story, it seems a worthwhile endeavor in itself. Underland is gloriously fun to look at and is only enhanced by the 3D format in which it plays in many theaters.

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