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Alice in Wonderland

Despite its many flaws, Alice is half a triumph. Besides being able to technically bring Lewis Carroll’s world to the screen, the film is usually enjoyable.

Alice in Wonderland

Directed by Tim Burton

Reviewing the new Tim Burton helmed Alice in Wonderland picture is somewhat of a fool’s errand.  Both Burton and Alice command a devoted fanbase, and to many of them the project seems like a perfect marriage of man and material.  Those film-goers already sporting a new Wonderland t-shirt will be there this weekend, snowpocalypse or shine.  But Burton has accrued plenty of naysayers over the years, and to those less happy with his hit-or-miss appropriation of classic intellectual property, Alice surely looks like yet another grave desecration.  Well, I’ve got bad news for everyone: this movie is okay.

Burton’s decision to take on Alice seems (to this reviewer, at least) perfectly reasonable.  There isn’t a truly great film adaptation of the book, the man is obsessed with trippy visuals, and people love Alice in Wonderland.  To his credit, Burton gets a lot right–the effects are gorgeous, the actors are mostly excellent and often hilarious, and the spirit of Alice is still in tact.  Unfortunately, these good things are heaped atop a generic, unsatisfying plot that can’t support the film’s other aspirations.

A 19-year-old Alice Kingsley (Mia Wasikowska) has found that the aristocratic life doesn’t fully suit her.  When, at her (unbeknownst to her) engagement party a waistcoated hare shows up, she can’t help but ditch her aspiring lordly fiance to jump down a rabbit hole. When she arrives in Wonderland, she goes through the old shrinking and growing rigmarole, and her old pals there question whether she’s the “right” Alice.  Sadly, this is the first of many nonsensical conflicts needlessly shoehorned into the plot.

Once it becomes clear that she is, in fact, the right Alice, adventure ensues.  For the best stretch of the film, Alice re-explores Wonderland, meeting up with theTweedles (Matt Lucas), the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) et al. But it’s not all fun and games: the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) is up to her old tricks–barking orders and cutting off heads.  Despite her typical evilness, she doesn ‘t seem to be engaged in any uncharacteristically shenanigans, but due to a prophecy, or more accurately, lazy writing, is is made imperative that Alice kill the Jabberwocky on the “Frabjous ” day. The film hangs on this lousy prophesy, and while Burton almost touches on themes of fate and free will, he sidesteps these in favor of rip-roaring action and female asskickery.

Wasikowska plays the titular space cadet perfectly, and with twice the heroics shown in previous Alice efforts. Also outstanding is Bonham Carter, who crafts a hilarious, believably bratty villain and, due to state of the art special effects, looks awesome.  Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum are consistently funny, and it’s nice to hear Little Britain’s Matt Lucas doing his thing on the big screen.  Anne Hathaway does well as the White Queen, and seems very comfortable back in the children’s fantasy realm.  Johnny Depp plays the Hatter well, but he is too often asked to shift down into “very special” Hatter mode–where he and Alice become the closest most supportive of friends instead of what they are, a stubborn girl and an insane man.  The only actor who is simply and sorely underused is Crispin Glover, who plays the Knave of Hearts with exactly one note.

As mentioned, the effects are outstanding.  The use of CGI to augment the size of characters and body parts is seamless, and all of the creatures are well rendered.  The world occasionally seems underdeveloped–the scope is understandably not up to Avatar snuff–but it is usually convincing.  The Disney 3D experience is recommended, as the effects team uses it sparingly and subtly.

After seeing Burton’s Alice, it’s hard not to wonder what would have happened if the script had been treated as a reboot rather than a sequel. Making Alice a 19 year old was a bold and successful decision, but most of the other changes seem pointless and confusing.  There is conflict throughout the film, but only rarely does it cohere or resolve.  There is palpable chemistry between Queens Red and White that could have led to something urgent and satisfying.  There is a relationship between the White Queen and the Hatter that is brought up and never developed.  There is a believable tie between Alice and her father that is introduced and then ceaselessly exploited for false pathos.

Despite its many flaws, Alice is half a triumph.  Besides being able to technically bring Lewis Carroll’s world to the screen, the film is usually enjoyable.  Wasikowska is a tremendous leading lady, the picture is littered with wit, both visual and spoken, and the whole troupe of psychotics are just as charming as they were 150 years ago.  But the failures of the film make one thing clear: trying to turn Carroll’s vision into a neat Hollywood hit-maker works about as well as asking Alice to marry a lord.

– Emmet Duff