Alice in Wonderland
Dir: Tim Burton
Walt Disney Pictures
In a decade or so Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland will be another Return to Oz or Hook — an intense sequel to a classic that will be mostly forgotten except to the people who saw it as kids. That’s why I like Return to Oz and very much fear giving it a re-watch in case I realize it sucks.
A sequel disguised as a remake of the 1951 classic animated film (I guess it was originally a book or something, too), Alice finds its titular protagonist (Mia Wasikowska) a quirky, misunderstood 19-year-old who seems fully aware that Victorian England is full of twits as she’s about to be proposed to by some horrible Dr. Moreau man-bird hybrid at a party specifically orchestrated by Alice’s mother. In other words, it’s a surprise engagement party. Thankfully, the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) comes along to lead her down the rabbit hole, and it’s apparently business as usual for those who know the story.
But soon we find out that this isn’t Alice’s first time down the rabbit hole. She’s just forgotten about it, and few in Wonderland believe that this young woman is originally Alice. In the years between adventures, Wonderland has become an unpleasant place to live as the Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter, unsurprisingly) has become the Red Queen (still Helena Bonham Carter) and terrorizes the land with her pet dragon, the Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee). Alice, naturally, has to defeat her and return the White Queen to the throne. Oh, and the real name of the world is “Underland” because “Wonderland” is too whimsical and unrealistic.
Alice in Wonderland sports some great design work. The Red Queen’s soldiers are particularly good, turning the card-shaped soldiers into something resembling retro-futurist robots. For some reason they made up Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter to resemble Elijah Wood wearing Queen Elizabeth I’s makeup. Other characters, like the Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry, the best part of the film), pretty much resemble their cartoon iterations since they are indeed glorified cartoons. In fact, the entire world, including most of the characters, seems entirely CG — off-putting at first until I realized that Alice is the only character that looks like a person, which is reminiscent of Walt Disney’s sort-of-related 1920s Alice silent shorts, which depicted a live-action girl interacting with cartoons.
Tim Burton certainly deserves a cookie or something for not turning Alice in Wonderland into a teenaged goth nightmare as many of us expected of him. Instead, he uses new concepts like colors and smiling while retaining a few of his trademarks: lingering father issues, Depp and Bonham Carter. This being a Tim Burton movie, he can’t be bothered to give us a sense of wonder or anything which strikes me as a bit fatal to a movie called Alice in Wonderland. Which leads me to believe this is another Planet of the Apes where Burton accepted a fat paycheck to deliver some average material.
The script, by Lion King and Beauty & the Beast screenwriter Linda Woolverton, is strictly boilerplate. Prophecy dictates only Alice can defeat the dragon and free Wonderland, so a bit of adventuring leads to a big Lord of the Rings-style battle between playing card robots and anthropomorphized chess pieces (more great design work) while Alice does indeed accept her destiny and fights a dragon. Thankfully, the execution has a decent amount of wit and whimsy to excuse the conventionality of the thing.
As Alice, Wasikowska is delightfully quirky compared to her stiff English caricatures in the real world, but once she ventures into Wonderland she’s mostly relegated to reacting to things, as protagonists in these kinds of films so often do. Soon enough, as if becoming metatextually self-aware, Alice realizes she should have some agency in this movie and starts becoming an actual protagonist instead of just a tag-along. This involves donning shining silver armor and a huge sword to fight a dragon, which you just don’t see enough of in cinema.
It’s this female-empowerment moment — sure, it’s a phallic symbol, what what else would you use to kill a dragon? — that wins me over on Alice as I imagined little girls seeing this movie and growing up to think, “Hey, I can slay dragons, too” and “Hey, I guess I don’t have to marry this obviously inbred nobleman if I don’t want to.”
Alice in Wonderland, may you spawn a generation of female dragon slayers.