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Alice in Wonderland

By Kent Turner — School Library Journal, 3/5/2010

Purists will be perplexed and the average moviegoer ultimately disinterested by director Tim Burton’s pedestrian spin of Lewis Carroll’s 1865 classic, Alice in Wonderland. Those hoping to see the heroine swim in the pool of tears, the pig-baby, or the Mock Turtle will leave disappointed. Instead of losing her way in Wonderland, this Alice takes the Harry Potter/Lord of the Rings route, fighting evil as an empowered warrior.
This umpteenth adaptation begins with six-year-old Alice waking up from a strange dream—she remembers something about a blue caterpillar and a dodo. The film then flash forwards 13 years later. Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now a lovely, porcelain-skinned young woman with blond ringlets about to become engaged to a fey aristocrat. Right as he’s on his knee proposing to her, Alice’s attention diverts to a rabbit rummaging in a hedge. She runs after it, and plunges into the hole in which the hare vanishes.

From a hookah-puffing Caterpillar, Alice is given an ancient scroll, “the Compendium,” that prophesizes that someone by the name of Alice must kill the dragon-like jabberwocky, the protector of the tyrannical Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Before she accomplishes this, she must first find a sword with magical powers. Her newfound confidant, the Cheshire Cat, tells her that the sword knows what it wants, she just needs to hold onto it.

The script by Linda Woolverton chucks out the episodic nature of the original novel and imposes a hero’s rite of passage, turning the bizarre into the rational. There’s nothing wrong with Alice as a take-charge action figure—if only she actually did anything. She’s more a bystander than participant, even in battle. And it’s not as if the original Alice was insipid or a shrinking violet. She may not always have known what to say or do, but she was still only a child.

The film was 3-D-ified only in post-production, which may explain why this Wonderland is muted compared to the film adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s Coraline. Down in the rabbit hole, the computer-generated production design is pretty much what you’d expect from Burton: a dark, misty forest with spinney trees; and a far-out, garish Mad Hatter, orange hair sprouting out from his hat, clashing with his pale green eyes. Speaking in a strange brogue, Johnny Depp adds a lisping, foppish eccentric to his resume of crazed Brits. Unfortunately, the humor of his frantic and often indecipherable antics with the March Hare and the Dormouse falls flat—the viewer will definitely feel cut-off from their tea party.

The script mashes up Carroll’s Wonderland with his follow-up Alice Through the Looking Glass, bringing in Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the jabberwocky, and the White Queen, played by the ghostly Anne Hathaway, who sends up her Princess Diary heroine, ever so dainty with the florid hand gestures to match. (If you’ve seen her spoof Mary Poppins on Saturday Night Live, you’ll get the idea.) Acting and not special effects seizes the day; Hathaway and Bonham Carter (with an inspired and freakishly outsized head and gusto) save the film from monotony.

Advancing Alice’s age automatically takes away her sense of wonderment or befuddlement. The dialogue of Carroll’s Alice would sound strange coming out of the mouth of a 19-year old. However, no matter fantastic her surroundings, Alice remains an unfazed observer, calmly repeating to herself that all she’s seeing is a dream. So if nothing matters to her, why should the audience care?

Directed by Tim Burton
109 min.
Rated PG
Photos courtesy Disney Enterprises

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