It was reported in the trades this week that Tim Burton’s 3-D, live action Alice in Wonderland crossed the one billion dollar mark at the international box office. That’s a serious quantity of dollars, euros, rubles and yen spent on less than two hours of escapism during the middle of a global economic crisis, but at least this escapism has quality in spades (or is it red hearts?). A sort-of sequel to Disney’s animated film and mash-up of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, Alice in Wonderland spins the fantastical tale of an older, if not wiser, Alice plunging back down the rabbit hole into an underworld that’s now a delightful combination of Carroll’s inventive imagination and Burton’s delectable visual style. More after the jump:
In the film’s opening scenes, we are introduced to an Alice that can best be described as her father’s daughter. Not only is shipping magnate Charles Kingsleigh prone to imagining things that don’t yet exist – in this case, possible trade routes to unchartered foreign lands like China – he’s also sensitive to the issue of feeling “mad.” Still reeling from her initial visit to Wonderland, Alice confides in her father her fears she’s “gone ‘round the bend.” Charles assures her “all the best people are.” It’s this shared capacity for imagining things not as they are but as they might be that keeps Alice from accepting a lackluster marriage proposal from a big-gummed suitor named Hamish. Not yet possessing the strength to turn him down outright, however, Alice runs off in the middle of the engagement party and falls back into the rabbit hole. There she again encounters outlandish characters and ideas that will help restore her inner authority, or as the film defines it, her “muchness.”
Speaking of “muchness,” what this magical new version of Alice has “much” of is Burton’s unique visual flair along with vividly rendered characterizations from his usual troop of clever, kooky actors. Johnny Depp, longtime Burton vet most recently seen in his Sweeney Todd, is winningly daffy as the “Mad Hatter.” With bulging green eyes and electric orange hair, he’s certainly the most visually striking version of Carroll’s character ever depicted on screen. Not only is the character a goof but Depp also manages to infuse him with a crippling sense of his own insanity that lends the film a surprising pathos.
Another Burton vet on hand is Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, the delightfully heartless villainess who presides over Wonderland with Cupid’s bow lips and a massive cranium. I’ve heard fanboys grumble over the fact that Burton keeps casting his missus in his films, but between her underrated work in Sweeney Todd and her deservingly praised turn here, she’s not only Burton’s muse, she’s really his secret weapon. One of the film’s true pleasures is watching Carter’s Queen flippantly bark orders at everyone around her.
New to Burton’s mad and merry band of players are Anne Hathaway in an amusingly dippy turn as the White Queen, Crispin Glover in the relatively subdued (well, subdued for him) role of the Red Queen’s henchman and Alan Rickman, Michael Sheen, Michael Gough, Imelda Staunton (basically anyone who was ever in a Harry Potter or Tony Blair movie) providing witty, Brit-y voice over work.
As the titular character, relative newcomer Mia Wasikoswka (upcoming The Kids Are Alright) is stuck playing the somewhat reactive straight man in Burton’s world of demented denizens, but she handles the role with a skillful mix of angst, wonder and quiet fortitude. Alice’s reserve may not make her as endearing a character as Judy Garland’s more emotional “Dorothy,” but I’m not sure the latter would have been believable suited up in armor and ready to take on the Jabberwocky.
The subgenre of fantasy movies in which beloved fictional characters pay a return visit to their old magic stomping grounds is rife with mediocre entries. The best known are probably Steven Spielberg’s Hook and Walter Murch’s Return to Oz. Alice easily stands taller than those two by avoiding the treacly sentimentality of Spielberg’s film and the off-putting coldness of Murch’s. More importantly, I think it succeeds because it tells a stronger, more psychologically sound story than its own animated predecessor. Alice isn’t just wandering around Wonderland on a series of kooky misadventures as she does in the 1951 Disney film. Here she’s on a real hero’s quest to save the world of her imagination and, in turn, herself.
Alice’s message about how imagination can and should precede achievement is also an inspiring one. Its appeal might help explain the film’s wondrous global box office.
Blu-ray’s 1080p High Def picture truly optimizes Alice’s eye-popping color palette. Audio options include English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English 2.0 DVS, French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital Surround. Subtitle options include English SDH, French and Spanish.
The Blu-ray includes 12 behind-the-scenes featurettes split into two categories: “Wonderland Characters” and “Making Wonderland.” Each includes extensive interviews with the uniquely articulate and creative team that helped bring Alice to life, including director Tim Burton, actors Johnny Depp, Anne Hathaway and Helena Bonham Carter, screenwriter Linda Woolverton, costume designer Colleen Atwood and composer Danny Elfman.
The 3-Disc Combo Pack includes a DVD and Digital Copy.
This delightful return to Wonderland features sumptuous visuals, delicious character work from Depp and Bonham Carter and an inspiring message about the importance of imagination.
Alice in Wonderland is rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar. It has a run time of 109 minutes.