March 11, 2010

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Alice in Wonderland (PG)
A Mad Hatter Johnny Depp and a bobble-headed Red Queen by Helena Bonham Carter all but push Alice off the screen in Alice in Wonderland, a visually interesting but strangely grim and scattered reimagining of the Alice story.

After a brief prologue with a child-aged Alice, we meet our Alice (Mia Wasikowska), a 19-year-old, late-Victorian-period woman who discovers, to her horror, that the garden party she’s been dragged to is her engagement party. After listening to her would-be-fiancé’s mother warn her about his delicate stomach, Alice finds herself in a gazebo surrounded by a crowd and being proposed to. Not sure what to do, she darts off, following glimpses of a White Rabbit that was hopping around the garden. She falls into a hole and keeps on falling, past floating clocks, until she plops down in a hallway filled with locked doors and a bottle with a “Drink me” note, a cake with “Eat Me” frosting and a key that fits in only the smallest door.

This isn’t exactly the original Alice entrance to Wonderland — now she’s being watched by creatures who wonder why she doesn’t remember all this from the first time and if she’s really the “right Alice.” As with previous movie Alices, this one eventually meets the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse), a blue caterpillar (Alan Rickman) and, of course, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). These characters all insist that Alice is meant to fight and slay the Jabberwocky to end the reign of the tyrannical Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and restore the White Queen (Anne Hathaway).

Who, frankly, is a not-terribly-likeable flake — but who’s to say what talking animals and assorted magical creatures want in a monarch?

Alice in Wonderland seems to be half of a story — specifically, the half that lets the Mad Hatter be, well, mad and that lets the Red Queen shake her giant Bette-Davis-caricature orb and yell “off with her head” like a toddler in the middle of a right good tantrum. They are fascinating bendable shapeable action figures with nifty accessories and fun sidekicks, particularly in the case of the Red Queen, who is served by the thoroughly creepy Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover). They are all sound and color — making poor pale Alice seem sort of limp and half-drawn next to them.

And while you can point to the motivations of the Hatter and the Queens (Red Queen: rule the land; White Queen: restore kindness; Mad Hatter: bring in significant box office — mission accomplished), you can’t really figure out what’s driving Alice. She isn’t that keen on getting home; she doesn’t particularly care about or even believe in the quest of the other characters. She decides at a certain point to help rescue the Mad Hatter from trouble but develops this affection for him with very little in terms of believable reason. There are hints here and there that her mission is to figure out who she will be as a grown-up: will she be the wife of a man picked out for her long ago or does she have some other destiny? But this isn’t particularly well developed throughout the story. You get the sense that it’s supposed to be there but you don’t really see it play out.

A sensible, real-seeming Alice could have stood out in this fantastic Crayola world, but with so little to her character she recedes, making the story feel aimless and without a center. There are neat characters here, nifty creatures and settings, but they don’t build up to anything. They don’t even work in the way the original story (by which, of course, I mean the Disney cartoon) did, which was sort of as a string of shorts that allowed us to examine each strange new character.

And, sure, the effects are nifty. The movie gives us a colorful Wonderland (or Underland, as we learn it is truly called) and one that is probably better viewed in 3-D than in 2-D. I saw the movie as a two-dimensional affair and not all of the graphics hold up. I don’t know that they would look so much better in 3-D but I suspect the overall effect would be more dazzling, less cartoony.
The elements of a moody new take on the story are there in this Alice in Wonderland. But, perhaps because the movie seems cut to let other characters shine, this seemingly Burton-ready fairy tale never really takes flight. C

Rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar. Directed by Tim Burton and written by Linda Woolverton (from the book by Lewis Carroll), Alice in Wonderland is an hour and 49 minutes long and distributed in wide release by Walt Disney Pictures.