Oh frabjous day! Here at last is a Tim Burton film that fulfills the magical promise and eccentric whimsy that the off-kilter director has been teasing us with all these long years. Not quite the vision that Lewis Carroll imagined when he wrote Alice in Wonderland and Alice through the Looking Glass, this Alice is all the best possible parts of that fantasia coupled with the better instincts of Burton’s own voracious imagination.
Earning the title ‘wonderland’, the phantasmal dreamscapes of Alice’s adventure unfold with a pastoral, surreal beauty that spring to odd and awkward life in 3D. This is not the immersive technique of Avatar, but instead a kind of pop-up book diorama where we feel we can run our hands over each lovely, absurd image and they both have depth, and not-depth. The fx have been used to build an animated world that stretches the boundaries of what we are willing to expect and the grand delight of Burton’s universe is not that he gives us things we have never seen before, but instead reintroduces us to dreams we had long forgotten we had.
By basing most of the character designs on John Tenniel’s classic engravings Burton pulls out a collective understanding of what Alice should be and the images onscreen reinforce childhood memories of a land full of illogical and irrational beings and dark, strange adventure. Towards the end of the film, when the Jabberwocky comes whiffling through that tulgey wood and burbling in the foreboding tones of Christopher Lee, I was transported directly back to youth and I couldn’t help but feel a bit perplexed.
This indeed, is just as I had imagined it as a child and yet, I never would have placed Lee’s voice in its mouth. That touch is perfect though, and it aligns the Carroll creations, the pop awareness, and Burton’s own sensibility in one shimmering moment of fantastic delight. Almost the entirety of this new Alice is that way, a mythological and mad miasma of the concerns and insecurities of adulthood laid perilously over the matter-of-fact logic that often accompanies childhood.
Carroll purists, and I don’t honestly know how many of those are out there, may take offense at the way Burton has streamlined and arranged their story. For one thing, this isn’t a remake exactly or an adaptation of Through the Looking Glass. Instead, it’s a sequel of sorts, using Alice’s forgetting of the original events to make her return to Underland (as a child she mistakenly cited it as wonderland) new and uncertain while still including most of the signposts and moments that we know and love. The story follows a different tact that belongs more to the land of Oz or Narnia than to Wonderland. Alice is a prophesied warrior, The Red Queen an insecure tyrant, and The Mad Hatter a pitiable member of the royal court, faithful but fallen on hard times. All of this has been done no doubt so that audience members can have a more relatable, familiar fantasy to hold on to.
I personally didn’t mind, as the new adventure satisfies on a narrative and thematic level and it allows Alice to come to the forefront of the story in a way she never has before. Mia Wasikowska is a vision of lovely innocence and curiosity as Alice and wisely screenwriter Linda Woolverton has aged the character so she’s hovering in the uncertain ‘underland’ that exists beyond adolescence but just before the boundaries of adulthood.
On her first trip to Wonderland Alice was merely observer and testifier to the insane ramblings and riddles of its inhabitants. Now, with Wasikowska channeling reserves of youthful courage and confidence, she makes choices and interacts with the roiling universe she finds before her. Watching Alice confront and comfort the frumious Bandersnatch–think Jim Henson Creature Shop meets a bloated wolverine– is one of those sublime instances where Burton expertly has two things going on at once; Alice is growing up, and she’s reclaiming her youthful destiny.
The rest of the characters are realized in a multitude of ways. Most of them are completely CGi, and this goes for all of the monsters like the aforementioned Jabberwocky, Bandersnatch and the deadly Jub-Jub bird as well as the more benign residents of Wonderland like Bayard the hound, the door-mouse, the White Rabbit, and the oafish Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. Some of the characters are played by actors but have been deformed and manipulated in the editing room so they are monstrous caricatures of real people.
The least effective is Crispin Glover’s Stain, the toadie and sometimes lover (ick!) of the Red Queen. Glover is quirky and fine from an acting perspective, but the strange decision to digitally elongate his body so he’s a thin imposing wisp of a man is off. It never looks plausible and so most of the time we are looking at something that reminds us of Gumby with an eye patch. Better is Depp’s Mad Hatter who is more or less the same character he always plays in a Burton film; the oddball whose extreme external flaws (he’s got eyes that don’t dilate, a lisp that never leaves, and a Scottish accent that disappears on and off, as well as a mind that goes everywhere and nowhere) mask the fact he is made internally of strong and steadfast stuff.
The character who steals the show however is Helena Bonham Carter as The Red Queen. The special effects work completely for her, and I think it’s because she’s mostly a giant head on a tiny body. We aren’t even thinking about the rest of her because that enormous orb on her shoulders has the expressiveness of Carter’s own face and those piercing, half-mad eyes stare so intently we dare look elsewhere for fear of losing a head. Carter makes the Queen more than a tyrant and less than a fully realized person.
This is exactly what the film needs though. She was an abstract absurdity in the book and all of her human traits are seemingly based on what Burton knows about outsiders; the way they can draw strength inwardly to combat difference or insecurely lash out and surround themselves with what they believe to be ‘normalcy.’ In Burton’s version, the Queen’s greatest crime isn’t her subversion of Underland, but that she is living an elaborate lie that requires all to be subjugated to her deluded self image. She’s the mirror monster of what Alice will become if she falls victim to outside expectations.
As escapist entertainment, I found the movie to be frightfully good. It has some compelling layers but mostly it just works as a joyful puzzle of rich imagery and random bizarre flights of fancy. The details are terrific and scanning Underland gives us a peek at hundred of diverse and odd species that one many only fully see when this arrives on DVD. As a fantasy fable for youngsters and their parents I believe it also works. It is transporting and exhilarating and only intermittently dark. For Burton, abandoning that constant itching melancholy proves to be as effective and freeing as taking off an albatross around the neck. Wonderland is better, brighter and more confident than almost anything he’s ever d0ne.
A master of the misfit, Tim Burton has faced the mirror images of his own career expectations and emerged with a new and beautiful masterwork. Calloo Calay!