Alice in Wonderland

Posted on June 1, 2010 at 8:00 am

Almost 150 years ago Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson published his wildly imaginative story about Alice’s adventures down a rabbit hole. And now the wildly imaginative director Tim Burton has brought Wonderland to the 3D movie screen. It is less faithful to the original story than many of the previous dozen or so movie versions, but I think Dodgson, better known by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, would approve of Burton’s bringing his own take to the classic characters.

He brings his own story as well. Carroll’s Alice is a little girl bored by her sister’s dull book, and her journey is episodic and filled with wordplay and references to Victorian society that fill the annotated edition of the book with witty footnotes.

To make the story more cinematic, Burton tells us that all of that has already happened in what young Alice thought was a dream. This is her return visit. Alice is 18 years old and has just been proposed to by a dull but wealthy lord with no chin and bad digestion. As she meets up with the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, and the Mad Hatter, she is not the only one who is confused. Characters seem puzzled and unsure about whether she is the real Alice. The Mad Hatter peers at her perplexedly. She may be Alice, and yet not quite completely the Alice they are looking for. “You were once muchier,” he tells her. “You’ve lost your muchiness.” In Burton’s version, Alice’s adventures are about her finding her “muchiness.” Her visit to Wonderland is a chance for her to understand what she is capable of and how much she will lose if she makes her decisions based on what people expect from her. As in the Carroll story, she is constantly changing size, and Burton shows us that she is really finding her place. She believes she is once again in a dream but increasingly learns that it is one she can control. By the time she faces the Jabberwock, she knows that she is in control — and that her courage and determination can create the opportunity she needs to follow her heart.

Johnny Depp brings a depth, even a poignance to the Mad Hatter, and Helena Bonham Carter is utterly delicious as the peppery red queen, hilariously furious over her stolen tarts. There’s a thrilling battle, the visuals are dazzling, with references to classic book illustrations by Maxfield Parrish, and the 3D effects will have you feeling as though you are falling down the rabbit hole yourself. The frame story bookending the Wonderland/Underland adventure is tedious and, oddly, less believable than the disappearing cat and frog footmen. But Burton’s re-interpretation of the classic story is filled with muchiness and the result is pretty darn frabjuous.

Related Tags:


3D Based on a book Fantasy For the Whole Family Remake Talking animals

11 Replies to “Alice in Wonderland”

  1. Thanks for another timely review. (You are fast!) This is one movie I am anxious to see and your B+ is reassuring.
    I have referenced your comments on my post tonight about the movie and linked back to your post.

  2. Thanks for the wonderful comments about me in your post! You should note that the “Rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar” is from the MPAA ratings board, not the Christian Science Monitor. (And my name just has one N — Minow.) Thanks again — you made my day.

  3. I’m looking forward to this one. When Burton and Depp get together, the product is usually pretty good (though I thought they made a far inferior version of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory when held up to the Gene Wilder version).
    One thing I do find interesting is that I’ve been hearing a remake of Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit” on the radio, apparently it’s on the soundtrack. Which wouldn’t bother me so much if this were a more adult-oriented telling of the story, like the recent television miniseries (and indeed the Jefferson Airplane version was used very effectively in the Alice-centric Warehouse 13 episode “Duped”). But considering that this is a Disney film, even with Tim Burton at the helm, I can’t help but to wonder how well the song fits in what I’m assuming is more of a kids/family telling, given its obvious drug culture overtones. Or am I mistaken about the tone and this is really more of an adult Disney film, akin to the Pirates of the Carribean?

  4. There’s just a brief use of the song, Dave, but yes, I think this is an adults-oriented version of the story with some scary monsters and violence — and an adult heroine instead of the 11-year-old in the books.

  5. I had heard some bad advance press about this movie, Nell, but now I’ve read a couple of favorable reviews, including yours, and think I may check it out. Mia Wasikowska, whom I’ve seen on “In Treatment” is a fine actress, but I will have a hard time getting away from my picture of Alice from the classic illustrations, in which she is a 10-year old.
    For me, Johnny Depp’s performances alternate between brilliant and silly and annoying. That’s why I like him. He takes real risks as an actor and often these don’t work. He really is our Brando in that respect, in my opinion. I’m not a big Helena Bonham Carter fan, and I wish (probably a hopeless wish, I realize) that Tim Burton would stop casting his wife in all his movies.

  6. My wife and I watched the movie last night in 2D. I may go back to see it again in 3D, like I believe it was supposed to be seen.
    Some of the scenes in 2D looked like they were made specifically because it was a 3D movie, so it almost pulled me out of the movie a couple times in a jarring way because it was almost too unrealistic in flat mode. 🙂 Not sure if other will notice it or not. But I am taking my two older kids to see it this afternoon in 3D.
    One thing I had a problem with, and maybe it was the theater, but my wife and I kept turning to each other asking… what did he/she just say? A lot of times with Johnny Depp’s character especially. Maybe he was trying to be a pirate hatter and drawing out his r’s. 🙂
    Anyway, it was a decent retelling, although I felt like the ending was a little rushed when she went back to the real world.
    Very good point by the way Nell that there are some very scary scenes in this PG movie. I will stick with the animated version for my two youngest kids. I appreciate your review on the movie. You were spot on.

  7. I knew you would like this one, Nell, and I did too … I can’t, in fact understand almost any of the criticism it has received … A lot of his other remakes or adapted works have certainly lacked creativity, but this one surely didn’t … The best part was still the first five minutes or so at Alice’s engagement party, which had me worried, because by far the best segment of his Willy Wonka disaster comes before the factory is opened, but this time, thankfully, he had a lot more fun things in store

  8. I feel like they’ve taken way too many liberties with the story, and wore, putting in all this stuff about “being in control” and “following your heart.” That’s not what the original story was about! It was meant to be just a silly story, not an epic quest.

  9. Thanks, D, I appreciate your point. But I can also understand how an episodic story that relies heavily on wordplay and a familiarity with Victorian culture might be hard to put on screen without some changes. Thanks for your comment — it will be very helpful to people who are deciding whether this film is right for them and their families.

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