Lewis Carroll's immortal story Alice in Wonderland has been brought to the big screen many times, notably 1951's animated Disney classic that memorialized the different characters in the story for many adults. With 61 title matches in the Internet Movie Database, it's safe to say it's a popular starting point for movie makers.
That's an intimidating challenge, especially for a director like Tim Burton who generally tackles stories that haven't been shown in film before and can be crafted in his own unique style. Think of A Nightmare Before Christmas, Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish and Mars Attacks! Prior to this, the most popular story he'd tackled was Willy Wonka, which he twisted unpleasantly with his muse Johnny Depp proving too creepy in the title role.
And so it's with a palpable sense of relief that I can report Alice in Wonderland is terrific. It's the kind of story where Burton's dark vision works perfectly, where the strange, moody and oft-sinister fantasy world Carroll described in the book (and its sequel Through The Looking Glass) can finally be brought to the big screen in glorious 3D.
There are nods to other films -- the opening is very reminiscent of the 3D fly-through of London that opens A Christmas Carol, some scenes look like they're from The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus and Underland (you read that right, "Wonderland" was a mis-pronunciation by Alice, according to the film) at moments looks an awful lot like the planet Pandora from the blockbuster Avatar -- and the ending is typical clunky Burton, but it's still a fresh and delightful take on the story.
We're all familiar with the bored young girl following an odd waistcoated rabbit with a pocket watch hopping through the garden, muttering "I'm late, I'm late", plummeting down a rabbit hole into a world where everything's upside down, creatures talk, potions can make you shrink and cake can make you grow enormously big, and a deck of cards has become a palace full of soldiers, royalty and knights.
Burton plays with our memories of Wonderland in the film, however, and so we first meet Alice in mid-1800's Victorian London as a young girl of six (played by Mairi Ella Challen) troubled by recurring dreams of rabbit holes, red queens, mad hatters and a little dormouse. "It's only a dream, nothing can harm you there" her father Charles (Marton Csokas) reassures her. Zoom forward thirteen years and Alice is nineteen, traveling by coach to meet her paramour Lord Ascot (Tim Pigott-Smith in an entertainingly priggish role), who, we learn, is going to ask her to marry him in front of hundreds of estate guests.
Alice, however, is an independent young miss who earnestly wants to determine her own path in life and is more interested in her father's business than any sort of soppy romantic entanglement with Ascot and his ghastly mother Lady Ascot (Geraldine James). Rather than answer his offer to marry her, Alice spots the waistcoated rabbit and follows him down the expected rabbit hole and into Wonderland.
At that point Burton does a terrific job of letting us know that the storyline is going to diverge from the original rather than just be an update to make the story more contemporary. "You've brought the wrong Alice!" we hear one creature tell the other as they (and we) peek through a keyhole into the room where she drinks the potion labelled "drink me" and tries to figure out the puzzle of becoming small enough for the tiny door while still having the key that's otherwise out of reach on the table to unlock it.
In this scene as with many others later in the film, the visual effects are splendid and the film constantly toys with our sense of scale. At some points Alice is considerably smaller than Tweeledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas in both roles), while at other points she towers over them. In another scene, she's small enough to ride on the brim of The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp)'s hat, while in others she is much bigger than he is.
The Red Queen plays croquet on the grounds of her castle
Alice quickly learns that the world of Underland is torn between the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter with a very swollen head) and the weird, but ostensibly nice White Queen (Anne Hathaway), and with her ephemeral guide the Cheshire Cat (voice of Stephen Fry) and champion The Mad Hatter (Depp), she travels through the dark, twisted world trying to avoid her destiny foretold, being the one to slay the terrifying Jabborwocky.
Filling out the roles, Crispin Glover brings a sense of melodrama to his role as the Knave of Hearts, a dastardly character if ever there was one in a fantasy film, Michael Sheen voices the White Rabbit, and Alan Rickman does a splendid job with his sinister voicing of the trippy Blue Caterpillar. Recognize his voice? He's the hated Professor Snape from the Harry Potter movies.
After the excruciatingly poorly acted Percy Jackson: The Lightning Thief, I was quite impressed with every performance. Mia Wasikowska did a splendid job as Alice, and Burton even tamed Depp and while the publicity machine emphasizes his crazy makeup as the Mad Hatter, he was relatively calm and didn't at all overshadow the other players (rather to my surprise). The weak link has to have been Anne Hathaway as the White Queen. She's certainly pretty, but she just can't act and film after film I watch her and shake my head sadly.
I will warn parents that there are some intense scenes, particularly tense chase scenes and the climactic battle between Alice and the Jabborwocky that could prove quite upsetting to younger children if they're not used to the dark visions of Tim Burton. There's also precious little that's amusing or funny in the film, certainly too little for a children's movie. You might want to screen the film yourself (popcorn in hand, of course) before you bring them along.
Near the end of the film, Alice crossly says "Since the moment I fell down the rabbit hole, I've been told who to be and how to act, but I'm going to make my own path!" That's exactly what Tim Burton has done with this wonderful and visually inventive retelling of the Alice in Wonderland story. Even though it's a bit sterile, it's still well worth seeing in the theater and will prove a great Blu-Ray purchase when it's available for home viewing.