Promotional art for Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland
Much like the SyFy version, of which I wrote a review back in December, Tim Burton's version finds an older Alice, played by Mia Wasikowska, revisiting Wonderland as a young woman. In this case, though, she was a bit younger, at 20, than in the SyFy version. But she faces a similar dilemma: a marriage proposal from an English nobleman, made at a garden party in front of hundreds of staring eyes. Instead of giving him an answer, she follows a white rabbit (who happens to be wearing a waistcoat) through the manicured garden and down a hole under a hollow tree.
Also in common with the SyFy version, Tim Burton's movie draws on some imagery from the second and less well known of Lewis Carroll's Alice books, Through the Looking Glass, with the Jabberwocky and the White Queen featured prominently.
But in every other point, the two versions diverge, as the SyFy version was a modern, steam-punk interpretation, while Tim Burton's movie is set in Lewis Carroll's time, roughly the 1860s (Alice in Wonderland was written in 1865). And while Burton puts his own fantastic, hyper-real spin on it, the movie's art designs are inspired by the original John Tenniel illustrations.
Of course, while Carroll's books followed a girl of about 11 who was wrestling with the demands of "proper" behavior for a little girl and longed to follow her own rules, Burton's 20-year-old Alice wrestles with the societal conventions of women. As a young woman just making the transition from childhood to adulthood, she feels torn between the worlds, as embodied by Mad Hatter's bemused statement to her at one point, "Why is it you're always too small or too big?"
Wasikowska does a great job of embodying those conflicting instincts. At times, such as at the garden party, surrounded by buxom women of means, she seems to be a little girl playing dress up. At other times, such as when she finds the inner strength to face her fears within Wonderland, she seems like a strong, powerful woman.
Burton's primary spin on the Carroll stories: to focus on the Jabberwocky, who only appears in a poem recited by one of the characters in Through the Looking Glass, and to establish Alice as a reluctant champion who must defeat the dragon-like monster to release her magical friends from the clutches of the Red Queen (played by Helena Bonham Carter and behaving more like the Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland, whose viciously capricious rule is much better known than the scolding Red Queen from Through the Looking Glass).
Borrowing from dream-like imagery, Alice's adventures suggest people and settings first seen in her waking world. Of course, like a dream shaman, she enters this Underland (the true name of the world she visits) by making her way through a tunnel in the earth. She must discover that, like a dream shaman, she can take control of that world and turn to face her fears. And much like solving recurring dreams can help the dreamer make sense of real-life issues, she returns to her waking world with new resolve and strength.
Also like the dreamworld, and like the Carroll books, the denizens speak often in gibberish and make ridiculous visual and verbal puns. This can sometimes be difficult to decipher to anyone who's trying too hard to make sense, especially when Johnny Depp, as the Mad Hatter, breaks into a Scottish brogue. For the most part, I deeply loved his performance, which I thought balanced the twin roles of being a brave rebel and being an unpredictable, off-kilter soul. An unlikely spirit guide, to be sure, but exactly the type one is likely to encounter in the dreamworld, where rules, appearances, and demeanor change in an ever-flowing progression.
Now, I've heard that some people have been complaining about the ending of Alice, but I've skipped such reviews for fear of spoilers. I can only imagine that they found, as I did, that Burton tries too hard to tie everything up in a neat little bow at the end. It might have been more interesting to leave some avenues open for the newly-confident Alice to discover in the future, rather than giving her a very solid destiny.
Overall, this movie did everything I expected of it: re-imagined Alice while paying homage to the original books; made use of stunning visuals; and based it all on strong performances from a well-known, talented cast. Perhaps one day I will find an Alice adaptation I like more, but this version has certainly set the bar high.
Rating: ****1/2 (4-1/2 out of 5 stars)
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