At the age of nineteen, Alice Kingsley (Mia Wasikowska, "Defiance") has no recollection of her childhood adventures, but she still has a vivid imagination. When she is surprised at a garden party by a proposal from the repugnant Lord Hamish (Leo Bill, "The Living and the Dead," "The Fall") in front of all his guests, the appearance of a white rabbit in waistcoat is just the diversion she requires. Begging the guests' pardon, Alice follows the creature down its hole and meets up with old friends under siege by the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) who need the help of "Alice in Wonderland."
The idea of marrying Tim Burton's unique visual talents with the works of Lewis Carroll - in 3D no less - sounds glorious. In execution, however, the film is a massive letdown, because without a strong script and good story ideas, Burton's visual flourishes are only so much window dressing. Despite interesting work from Johnny Depp as his Madonna-inspired Mad Hatter and Bonham Carter's unusually proportioned Red Queen, the film ultimately fails because Linda Woolverton's (TV's "Teen Wolf," "The Lion King," "Arctic Tale") script is merely a mashup of Carroll ideas, "The Wizard of Oz" and a little bit of Joan of Arc by way of St. George the Dragon Slayer. Burton's 3D world is a haphazard collection of set pieces, flatly executed.
In fact, in the completely live action sequences which begin and end the film, the 3D is nothing short of distracting, the players so distinctly separated from their backgrounds it feels like watching the real world though an old toy View Master. Distraction is almost welcome here, however, as a rather surly Alice is being prepped for a marriage proposal wearing a dress more appropriate for someone years younger (is this some sly dig founded on rumors of Carroll's unhealthy interest in his real Alice?). Before you can say Tweedledee, a matched pair of sisters clue Alice in on the upcoming proposal in time for her to ponder her escape. After her long fall, she is faced with the classic 'Drink Me,' 'Eat Me' conundrum as she attempts to get out of a locked room. Her eventual passage evokes Dorothy entering Oz (as the real life figures mirroring Wonderland's have) as she enters a woodland garden full of vibrant flowers, most with faces and voices, arguing with the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor) about whether or not the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen, "The Queen") has found the 'real' Alice.
She's taken to see Absolem, the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman, "Die Hard"), who shows her the Oraculum, a scroll with a history of past, present and a future which has Alice slaying the Queen's Jabberwocky in service to the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), but he only answers Alice's questions about her own identity with riddles. Convinced she is only having a dream, Alice is armed with fearlessness, which serves her well when she and her party are attacked by the Red Queen's Bandersnatch. She escapes with the Dormouse and is taken to the on-going tea party of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and March Hare (Paul Whitehouse). The Mad Hatter is thrilled to once again see his Alice and is positive she is the same. He is the one to tell her of the heinous acts of the Red Queen, who eventually captures him. It is this that spurs Alice to action.
And so we have a young girl within a dream who, together with a band of fantastical creatures, helps one Queen/Witch to defeat another. Unlike "The Wizard of Oz," however, there is no emotional resonance to this story with the possible exception of the Mad Hatter, whom Depp invests with a deep longing beneath his wiry red wig, green wall-eyed contacts, gapped teeth and face paint. "Little Britain's" Matt Lucas combined with great design and special effects makes for an always welcome Tweedledee and dum. Helena Bonham Carter, with a head too big for her body, a heart-shaped mouth and hairline (which also evokes Queen Elizabeth I) is another great creation, a petulant tyrant looking for the love afforded her younger sister. 'Off with his/her/their heads' is such a frequent refrain, that the Red Queen's castle moat is full of bobbing disembodied noggins. As her right-hand man, Stayne – Knave of Hearts, the exceptionally weird Crispin Glover ("Charlie's Angels: Full Throttle") brings absolutely nothing to the table. Anne Hathaway is odd casting as the White Queen, a natural brunette made up to be paler than pale so that she almost appears to have a faint moustache. The press notes imply a struggle between darkness and light within the character that Hathaway fails to enunciate. The cast also includes the witty Stephen Fry (""Bright Young Things") as the Cheshire Cat, Timothy Spall ("The Damned United") as Bayard, Stayne's bloodhound secretly on the side of the rebels and various British character actors as the British aristocracy in the real world.
While Burton's production is often sumptuous to look at, it is surprising how boring stretches of the film can be. The Oraculum this story hangs on is a lazy device and an analogy involving walking through doors is used ad infinitum. Still there are pleasures to be found, such as the Red Queen's frog footmen, sweating under accusation of stealing her tarts, or the rocking horse fly battling dragonfly that are 'curiouser and curiouser.' With the exception of that ill-considered first frock, Colleen Atwood's costume design is outstanding and Alice's ever changing proportions give it a workout. 3D effects within Wonderland/Underland mostly follow the new restraint of providing depth with the exception of hurtling objects within the rabbit hole (a la Dorothy's tornado) and the tea party madness. Danny Elfman's score is unexceptional, although the occasional use of a vocal chorus recalls his far superior "Edward Scissorhands" work. (Note that the 'soundtrack' CD selections do not appear in the film, with the exception of the bombastic Avril Lavigne song which plays over the end credits.)
"Alice in Wonderland's" conclusion, once again riffs on "Oz" (the Red Queen's army rejects her after our heroine saves the day and the good sister tells her how she might go home), but it goes as 'totally bonkers' as the hatter when she returns to England to make a highly unlikely feminist stance, supported by, of all people, her father-in-law-not-to-be in a globe spanning business venture!
Robin did not see this film.
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