How you react to this film will have a lot to do with your expectations. I didn’t expect a work of genius. In fact, I approached it with trepidation, worried that Tim Burton’s weird sensibility layered on top of Lewis Carroll’s already-surreal material would create a kind of overkill. I’m happy to report that I was pleasantly surprised. First things first: with no disrespect to Burton, this struck me more as Linda Woolverton’s Alice. As the principal screenwriter of the Disney features Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King, and Mulan, she has solid experience creating strong female characters. Here, she has reinvented Alice as a willful 19-year-old girl (nicely played by newcomer Mia Wasikowska) who flees from a stifling arranged marriage and falls down a rabbit hole. She has no memory of having visited this magical world once before, as a child.
Most of the familiar touchstones of Lewis Carroll are still here, from Alice’s initial re-sizing to her encounters with the cool caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat, but the journey—and its underlying purpose—are new, along with various supporting characters. Alice is now in search of herself, more than anything else, and the film calls on her to assert both inner and outer strength to vanquish the forces of evil. (I won’t give away more than that.) Some viewers will warm to these fresh ideas, while others may resist.
I, for one, delighted in Helena Bonham Carter’s performance as the Red Queen; she’s wonderfully funny because her narcissism seems real, not a comedy shtick. Crispin Glover follows her lead, lending genuineness and gravitas to his portrayal of the Queen’s most loyal subject, Stayne, the Knave of Hearts.
As for top-billed Johnny Depp, he brings his own brand of lunacy to the role of the Mad Hatter. A flashback sequence shows us how, when and why he went mad, but the end result is somehow less amusing (and likable) than Hatters past. Depp is always interesting to watch, but this is not his finest hour.
In a way, he represents the film’s split personality. Taken on its own terms, this Alice in Wonderland has much to recommend it: clever ideas, bright performances (including superior vocal performances by Alan Rickman as the caterpillar, Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, and Timothy Spall as a bloodhound named Bayard), impressive visual treatment, and an appealing heroine. Overall, I enjoyed the film. Do I think it will take the place of more traditional treatments of the famous story? No. It all comes back to expectations.
My greatest disappointment was the use of 3-D. It’s no secret that the film was shot with traditional cameras and later converted to the dimensional format. It shows. I have never been less impressed with 3-D. The imaginative CGI sets would seem to invite an imposition of depth, through the 3-D process, but my eyes became desensitized after a point. What’s more, in the wake of Avatar, where James Cameron invited us to immerse ourselves in a rich, dimensional environment, audiences have every right to expect more from the 3-D experience than this movie can offer.