It must say something about a Tim Burton “Alice in Wonderland” that the normal part (i.e., the story set in the real world) is more intriguing than the phantasmagorical Wonderland.
Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton have fashioned this version of Lewis Carroll’s oft-explored literary classic as a kind of sequel: a sequel to a movie we never actually saw. Alice, played by Mia Wasikowska, is not a little girl but an 18-year-old, scheduled for an arranged marriage to a foppish aristocrat.
At the betrothal party, she spots a white rabbit, which disappears down a hole. You know what happens next: Alice falls into the hole and enters Wonderland.
All through the film (which is in 3-D at many theaters), we are reminded that she visited Wonderland once before in her youth. Perhaps that visit was chronicled in one of Lewis Carroll’s tales or perhaps the 1951 Disney film.
Burton’s movie invents a new story for Alice to endure as she makes her way through Wonderland: Seems she will be required to slay the Jabberwocky (a creature called the Jabberwock in Carroll’s “Through the Looking-Glass”), the only way to free Wonderland from the decapitating impulses of the nasty Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).
The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp in full psychedelic mode) is elevated to near co-star status, which makes a certain dramatic sense but also might just be because Johnny Depp plays the role.
I suppose this new plot was conceived because the episodic nature of the original just won’t fly in a movie these days. Purists will likely resist the forceful storyline intruding on Alice’s goofy adventures — I know I did.
However, there is quite a bit to enjoy about this zany exercise. The section about Alice’s threatened marriage to a hopeless dope is splendid, a wonderful little tale of a rebellious girl.
Wonderland looks as you suspect Tim Burton sees it: all curlicue tree limbs and dark skies and sad-eyed creatures. Some of Lewis Carroll’s menagerie are here, and some are not (Humpty Dumpty is a no-show, for instance).
Coming off best are the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) and the Caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman); funniest are Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both voiced by Matt Lucas), who come across as bulbous little scamps.
Among the recognizably human, Helen Bonham Carter gives a deliciously wicked performance, which almost makes you forget at times that her head has been digitally enhanced so that it balloons out over the rest of her body.
Crispin Glover does his weirdie bit as the Knave of Hearts and Anne Hathaway flitters about at the White Queen.
About halfway through all this, Burton’s characteristic storytelling handicaps kick in, and the best you can do is just look at the screen and appreciate the design.
It can be reasonably expected that kids will be thrilled/unsettled by the movie, as they always have been, by various versions of “Alice in Wonderland.”
It’s worth noting, however, that in creating a linear, logical plot, Burton &Co. have gone against the glorious illogic that runs through so many scenes in the original. There’s something a little bit wrong about an “Alice” that makes sense.