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With a knack for creating imaginative worlds that can be both dark and colorful simultaneously, director Tim Burton seems like a natural fit to adapt the Wonderland of Lewis Carroll’s novels. However, for every inventive Big Fish or Edward Scissorhands, there are the atrocious re-envisionings of Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. So, let’s just say I was scared going into Alice in Wonderland because, while the setting and art direction seemed perfect, I couldn’t help but remember how bad his work from pre-existing films is. I want to give him credit for deciding to create a sequel rather than a unique version of material that is already so ingrained in the mind of every person who has seen the Disney animated original, but I think he could have gone further. It is set up perfectly with its ‘thirteen years later’ and discovery of 19-year old Alice’s engagement party, yet as soon as she goes down the rabbit hole, you can’t help wonder if you’ve seen it all before.

And this is my main issue with the film, even though it is conscious of the shortcoming itself. Alice arrives in Underland, (the name Wonderland, we discover, is a mishearing of the actual world’s name from her first visit), and she is in the room we recall so well. The only way out is a teeny-tiny door and the only way to fit is to drink the potion conveniently on the sole piece of furniture, a glass-topped table. As soon as Mia Wasikowska—who is very endearing as Alice, playing her with an edge of ego and confidence, while retaining the innocence one needs to create a world such as this—puts the key on the table, I felt like hitting my head, confused why everything was happening as it once did. But then we hear voices outside the door, voices that ask, “Why doesn’t she remember all this from before?” It is both an effective query, making everything fair game since she has forgotten her initial visit, and a convenient one because it allows the filmmakers to be lazy and repetitive with an out as to why. At least it gave me a reason to sit back and watch without too much disdain, even though I would rather Burton have just done a strict remake than be all schizophrenic by trying to be like the original and then two seconds later attempt to be different.

Alice has entered this world because she doesn’t know whether to do as everyone wants and marry a Lord she does not love, or if she should defy them and say no, risking the possibility of becoming like her spinster Aunt Imogene. The fantasy is then her escape to discover if she has the mettle to become her own woman, a champion of her own life. In Wonderland, her mirrored test is finding a way to become the great Jabberwocky slayer that destiny has foretold. The White Rabbit searched everywhere for the Alice who followed him so many years ago to be the White Queen’s champion and reclaim her throne from her sister, the insanely big-headed Red Queen. Alice doesn’t believe she has the ability to slay anything, even if she wanted to, but as her adventures continues, as she slowly rekindles the friendships from her childhood, she discovers that she would do anything for these eccentrics—the one family that has always believed in her; something that has been rare ever since her father passed away. So, the journey begins, characters are on warring sides, kidnappings run rampant, and the only one who can stop it needs to become the hero they all see her as.

If Burton has done one thing exceptionally well, it is the wondrous art direction on display. Seeing it all in fully computer-generated splendor is astonishing; all those aspects from the two-dimensional cartoon have come to life. My screening was not in 3D, but I don’t think that is necessarily a bad thing as I could still see the multiple instances of things coming towards me in the foreground. Whether it be the Knave’s pointing finger, a floating butterfly, or the Mad Hatter tossing scrolls into the theatre, it appeared the 3D was only utilized for gimmicky purposes rather than adding depth to the reality. And, honestly, if it wasn’t the James Cameron version of the technology, I’d almost rather not be bothered with the motion-blurring and small depth of focus. Also, by being a regular movie, I was able to treat it more as a lush painting—something that I think lends itself well to the story. All the characters have been Burton-ified, still retaining the traits that make them what they are, but slightly skewed to the oddly demented for a bit of fresh air. The Tweedles and a lot of fun, the March Hare looks as if he is rabid, and the Cheshire Cat is a miraculously gorgeous piece of animation. And the landscapes are memorable as well, especially the chessboard aesthetic of the White Queen’s castle.

As for the acting, it is all very over-the-top, both in good and bad ways. Anne Hathaway is almost too hammy with her White Queen, and yet I didn’t have a problem because she played it so broad that it became funny. On the opposite end of that spectrum is Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter; so eccentric for eccentricity’s sake, I got bored with him. With the creepily large and cartoony eyes, his performance was par for the course of late, becoming this odd creature in a way that you have to wonder if it can be called acting anymore, or just plain entertaining without rhyme or reason. The guy needs a real role again, and quick. His old Dead Man co-star, however, Crispin Glover, is always a treat to see since he so rarely works. He does the evil Knave of Hearts justice, always out for himself and playing everyone around him in order to stay close to whomever has the power. His character was very odd visually, though, almost as if he were half animated and half real with awkward, choppy movement that made him appear robotic. And last but not least is Helena Bonham Carter, who truly steals the show as the Red Queen. The performance is perfect in attitude, look, and tone. She was born to play this role.

I did enjoy my time in this new Wonderland, but unfortunately couldn’t separate it from my loving memories of the Disney original. Even Alan Rickman’s caterpillar’s “Who are you?” was unable to be stand by itself because it was so different from my childhood memories that it couldn’t be anything but wrong. I do think the trouble lies in Burton’s waffling over whether to make it a remake or a sequel, never letting me understand his motivations and take it as one or the other. As a remake it fails in not adding enough new things creatively to make the endeavor relevant and as a sequel it fails by rehashing too much from the first. I actually couldn’t help but also see a lot of similarities to another fantasy world—Jim Henson’s Labyrinth. I got lost in the comparison so deeply that, towards the end, when you have the requisite frame of all Alice’s make-believe friends readying to say goodbye—a scene in every film of this ilk straight down to The Wizard of Oz—I was waiting for the Dormouse or someone to say Sir Didymus’s famous line, “Well, should you needs us, for anything at all”. But alas, it was not to be. Instead we get the same ending as before, only with everyone thirteen years older.

Alice in Wonderland 6/10

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photography:
[1] Mia Wasikowska stars as Alice in Walt Disney Pictures’ epic 3D fantasy adventure ALICE IN WONDERLAND. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
[2] Helena Bonham Carter star as The Red Queen in ALICE IN WONDERLAND. © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.
[3] Film Frame (L-R) Matt Lucas, Johnny Depp, Matt Lucas. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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