Alice in Wonderland
directed by Tim Burton
(Disney, 2010)

The title of this movie troubles me.

In the minds of a lot of children (and their movie-selecting parents), "Alice in Wonderland" means a fairly specific set of adventures drawn from two novels -- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass -- by Lewis Carroll. Since Tim Burton's film Alice in Wonderland is most decidedly not that story, I can't fathom why Burton didn't title it accordingly: Return to Wonderland, perhaps, or Alice in Wonderland ... Again.

So please keep that in mind if you're making a decision whether or not to take young children to this film. It's not your usual Disney fare, that much is certain ... as you'll see early in the film when the Red Queen, after barking out the order to execute one of her anthropomorphic servants, follows it with an order to have his children served for dinner.

The movie begins at a party, where 19-year-old Alice Kingsley (Mia Wasikowska) is having a fairly bad day in what appears to be a fairly bad life. She is haunted by dreams of her visit to Wonderland -- dreams she believes to be just dreams until she flees her gawkish suitor's proposal and, yes, falls down the rabbit hole again.

But this isn't quite the same Wonderland. The Red Queen (a large-headed Helena Bonham Carter) is a terrible despot who, having bridled the Jabberwocky, has turned the dreamy Wonderland into a nightmare. The comedy Alice is now a tragedy, and there is a great deal of violence, implied death and a moatful of severed heads along with its talking animals and marching card soldiers. Those loyal to the White Queen (a luminous, if somewhat airy Anne Hathaway) -- including the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the March Hare (voiced by Paul Whitehouse), the Dormouse (voiced by Barbara Windsor), the White Rabbit (voice by Michael Sheen), the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) and the Tweedles dee and dum (voiced by Matt Lucas) -- are leading a subtle rebellion that requires the right Alice at its head.

Of course, being a Burton film, Alice is startling in its color and vividness. The special effects are amazing and sometimes quite lifelike. It's a visual treat with some strong performances from its cast; Depp is at his usual level of excellence, while Wasikowska is an actress to keep an eye on. But are those reasons enough to make a movie? Possibly not -- especially when Alice is supposed to thrive in Carroll's world of poetic nonsense, not a linear plot involving a quest and epic battle scene.

My 12-year-old daughter, who begged and pleaded to see this film before her best friend had the chance, came out of the theater saying she liked it. Pressed for reasons, she had none. And, perhaps tellingly so, she exited in a foul temper that seemed to me the result of the movie's dark and bewildering story.

To paraphrase the script, this Alice simply has too much muchness.

review by
Tom Knapp

20 March 2010

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