If we're doing some movie math, then "Alice in Wonderland" + Tim Burton + 3-D ought to = Awesome, right? The fantasy world created by Lewis Carroll would seem to be a perfect fit for three-dimensional moviegoing, and few filmmakers have the strong visual style of Burton, so he's a natural to pull it off. While certainly not at, say, Avatar levels, I'm happy to report that Alice in Wonderland generally delivers on its promise of fun.
Upon returning to Wonderland - which she initially thinks is just another dream - Alice discovers that a battle for the crown is being waged with the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) on one side and the benevolent White Queen (Anne Hathaway) on the other. It has been prophesied that Alice will take up arms for the White Queen, but that entails fighting a fearsome creature. This is not something she is initially sure she wants to do; after seeing the savagery inflicted by the Red Queen, Alice decides to step up and discover her fate.
Tim Burton - no surprise - has created a visually stunning Wonderland. It's the little touches that make it special, such as the fact that the Red Queen has a huge head that is out of proportion to her relatively tiny body. The use of CGI is terrific. Notice the way the Cheshire cat evaporates, only to reappear right before our eyes, courtesy of 3-D. The Red Queen's minions are still playing cards, but they've now been transformed into playing cards made of metallic armor - a really nice touch. Then there's Tweedledee and Tweedledum, who have been created by taking the face of actor Matt Lucas and grafting it onto two supremely dorky CGI bodies.
Burton is a master stylist who loves to create worlds that don't exist. Wonderland clearly opens up his imagination, giving him a playground where anything is possible. You can feel him relishing the opportunities it presents. I'm a sucker for fantasy worlds in general, and Burton's in particular, so on every visual level, the film was a real treat for me. I went in expecting something done in a kiddy style, but the director takes the picture much darker than that. Some of the scenes will be scary for very young children. Older kids and adults will appreciate the menace and substantive themes that the story doesn't shy away from.
Alice in Wonderland marks Burton's seventh collaboration with Johnny Depp. Once again, they work well together. Depp's Mad Hatter is his weirdest creation yet. He's like the love child of Willy Wonka and Captain Jack Sparrow, as raised by Hunter S. Thompson. (Ladies, if you still think Depp is "hot" in this get-up, I will be very, very frightened.) The other cast members fare just as well, and maybe even better. Relative newcomer Mia Wasikowska makes a perfect Alice, strong and independent. The scene-stealer is Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the Red Queen as petulant child, perpetually in tantrum mode. She's fantastically funny.
The whole 3-D phenomenon is something I've had mixed feelings about. When integrated naturally, as in Avatar, it adds something invaluable. Most filmmakers, however, use it as a gimmick to give the audience a cheap thrill. Whenever something pops off the screen, there's always the danger that the audience's investment in the story will be broken by their awareness of the effect. There are a few moments where Burton resorts to gimmickry, but by and large, he uses 3-D to immerse us in Wonderland. The place is so gloriously strange that the added dimension allows us to get lost in it a little more fully. You'd almost have to see the movie twice to pick up on all the little background details.
I think the storytelling could have been a bit more focused. At times, it feels like the plot is jumping too abruptly from one thing to another, with certain elements, like the feud between the two queens, not as developed as they could have been. The reunion and evolving friendship between Alice and the Mad Hatter also seems more ripe for exploring than the film is prepared to give us. I also wouldn't have minded more of the secondary characters, like the Cheshire Cat, the Caterpillar, and the March Hare, simply because they're so cool here.
This version of Alice in Wonderland isn't likely to go down as a classic, but it sure is enjoyable. The characters, of course, are beloved, and much of the entertainment value comes from seeing a new spin on them. Packed with visuals that are nothing less than delightful, and cast with actors who jump into their roles enthusiastically, Alice is a really good time, as well as a great example of how 3-D can be effectively used as a tool to immerse us in imaginary worlds.
( out of four)
Alice in Wonderland is rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar. (Note: Best ratings explanation ever.) The running time is 1 hour and 49 minutes.
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