Friday was opening night for the new Tim Burton film Alice in Wonderland. Having been thrilled by the 3D IMAX bliss of Avatar not long ago, I leapt at the chance to see this newest 3D IMAX movie in theaters. And of course, I’m morally obligated to write a review of it.
I really enjoyed the movie, but I want to add a caution to my endorsement.
The new Alice in Wonderland isn’t a retelling of the original story, but rather a revisiting of it. You don’t see Alice as a young girl exploring Wonderland for the first time — you see her as a 19-year-old woman on the verge of marriage, who finds herself back in Wonderland unexpectedly, and with no memory of her original adventure there. She spends quite a bit of the movie insisting that she’s not that Alice.
It’s like the 1991 Robin Williams film Hook, where an adult Peter Banning returns to Neverland and discovers (after resisting it for quite some time) that he’s actually Peter Pan all grown up. The concept here is almost identical.
Wonderland in this new story isn’t quite the joyously bizarre place of the original. Not surprisingly, Tim Burton’s vision is a little darker, a grim place, with a lot of the mirth replaced by fear and unease. Think of the original Batman television show from the 60s, and how Burton transformed it into a grim and weary place.
Fortunately for me, I don’t really recall the original Alice in Wonderland story very well. I’m vaguely aware that there was a queen, a mad hatter, and a rabbit who’s late. I remember there being guards made from giant playing cards. I remember a potion that makes you small, and a piece of cake that makes you big. And of course, I remember “Off with their heads!” That’s about it.
I think that helped me enjoy this film, because I didn’t have many preconceived notions. Talking with others who have seen the film, the common complaint that I hear from those who weren’t fans of it was typically that specific characters were missing or different, or things were changed, etc. For me, I was very nearly a blank slate, and experienced the movie as a standalone product.
It was beautifully filmed, with terrific performances from some of the actors. I loved Johnny Depp in the role, even though I hear plenty of grumbling that he wasn’t what people expected — and I can agree that he’s getting very good at playing the goofy but slightly frightening lunatic from Burton’s films. Helena Bonham Carter was extraordinary as the Red Queen — by far my favorite performance in the movie. Anne Hathaway was bizarre as the White Queen — a little over-the-top with her graceful dignity, but seemed to be in on the joke, as there’s one memorable moment in which she drops the act when no-one’s looking.
Stand-outs among the ensemble cast include Crispin Glover as the Knave of Hearts, Stephen Fry as the voice of the Cheshire Cat, and Alan Rickman as the voice of the blue caterpillar. All did a good job with their characters, even if they didn’t have the “star power” of the others mentioned above. And Mia Wasikowska was adequate, but not the least bit memorable, as the titular Alice.
My advice: Go see this movie, but have realistic expectations. It’s not a simple retelling of the original, and you are setting yourself up for disappointment if you go in with very many preconceived notions. Keep an open mind, and enjoy the show.