With his Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton is back with a film that may look in some ways like one of his others but in a lot of ways is a different animal. Mia Wasikowska (In Treatment, Amelia) plays 19 year old Alice, a young woman who has always had vivid dreams and is being shoved into marrying to a total prig. She falls down the infamous rabbit hole while running away from her “engagement party” to think about her options. And once down in this strange world, she encounters all the usual suspects, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp with a strange lisp), Tweedle Dee & Tweedle Dum, the Cheshire Cat, the March Hare, etc.
It all looks typically Burtonesque with the gnarled trees and generally vivid otherworldliness. But the feeling is different. Alice keeps telling herself she is dreaming, but comes to realize she isn’t. There is a psychological underpinning to this telling of the story, about a Victorian era girl wanting to be more than marriageable chattel. Her quest is to find out who she is and what she can do. To that end, she must enter into the battle between the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and the good White Queen (Anne Hathaway.) The Red Queen has an enormous head and pretty much hates everything shouting “off with his head” with great frequency. The White Queen is more Buddhist, taking care not to harm any creature. The Queens are sisters and have been at war for a long time and the only way to stop the whole thing is for the good Queen to get her hands on the Vorpal Sword and have her champion slay the Jabberwock. (The wonderful nonsense poem The Jabberwocky is woven into the tale, though if you are not acquainted with it, I wonder how much fun you’d find the references to the “frabjous day” or the “frumious Bandersnatch”.) And guess who will be that champion who slays the dragon?
The more I think of this movie, the more it seems like a good idea that just doesn’t come across on film. As an updated Alice it is beautiful to look at, but it is more like a great mosaic where you can look close up at all the pieces and think how amazing it is that it all goes together, but then stand back and it is just a pretty picture. As for an audience, I am not sure who would be the target. I love odd movies and Johnny Depp and nonsense poems, but there was something not quite there about this Alice in Wonderland. It wasn’t dark enough or light enough. It was just kind of in between. I did not see the 3D version and that probably is pretty wonderful, but still the story is pretty light weight. Kids might like it for the eye candy, but sadly I would not recommend it for adults who appreciate Tim Burton for his usual dark fantasy and strange but interesting sense of story.