Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland has had numerous film and television adaptations, but one of the most famous ones is the Walt Disney Pictures animated feature from 1951. Tim Burton – who had recently given us his unique spin on such properties as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street tackled Alice in Wonderland not as a retelling or remake of novel (and the sequel Through the Looking Glass), but rather as a fusion of the two told as a sequel (of sorts) to the first novel. Now grown up after her (rather traumatic) events in Wonderland as a child, Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) has been suffering nightmares and is convinced that her experience was nothing more than a dream. Along with her mother, she travels to the wealthy Ascot estate, where everyone knows that Hamish (Leo Bill) is going to propose to her, and Alice is expected to accept. Alice doesn’t conform to the expectations of Victorian society, and her rebellious nature is evident early on. During the party, Alice keeps seems glimpses of a white rabbit in a waistcoast – but no one else seems to see it. When Hamish makes his grand gesture of proposal, Alice – who is unhappy with the idea of a planned marriag – decides to take a moment and run away, chasing after the rabbit. Inevitably, she falls down a rabbit hole and, after a bit of necessary size readjustment, enters the fantastical world of Underland (which she had misheard as “Wonderland” the first time she visited).
She’s met by the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen), the Dormouse (voiced by Barbara Windsor) and Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) who explain to her that it has been foretold that Alice will destroy the Jabberwocky on Frabjous Day, thus ending the reign of the Red Queen. But they’re convinced that since she doesn’t remember Underland at all, she must be the “wrong Alice”, so they take her to the Blue Caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman) who informs them that she’s “not hardy Alice” – which doesn’t really clear it up. Well, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has heard of Alice’s return to Underland, and fearing losing her crown, dispatches the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) to find and capture Alice. She manages to escape, and encounters the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) who takes her to the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who would love to see the Red Queen lose her power. The Hatter goes to take Alice to the castle of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), but allows himself to be captured by the Knave to let Alice escape yet again. Alice now has to save the Mad Hatter, and decide if she has what it takes to live up to the prophecy and defeat the Jabberwocky and the Red Queen, saving Underland from tyranny.
Overall, Alice in Wonderland is an entertaining but very linear story. Much of the focus is on Alice, the Red Queen, and the Mad Hatter, and only Alice has any kind of character arc of sorts. It’s foretold from the beginning that she’ll fight and defeat the Jabberwocky, so by the time she finally gets around to it, it feels rather expected and we already know the outcome. Alice moves from character to character, situation to situation, without the sense of any real flow to the story. Wasikowska is decent enough in the titular role, but it’s really Carter who steals the show. Her mannerisms and outlandish behavior makes every scene with her a joy to watch, and she provides some truly funny moments. As the Mad Hatter, Depp has a bizarre quality that works, but his Scottish accent and mumbling – combined with Carroll’s occasionally unintelligible dialogue – makes his performance a challenging one to swallow.
From a visual perspective, Burton was the perfect director for the film. His vision of Underland brings Carroll’s work to vibrant life, popping out on the screen. Released in theaters in 3D, there’s a lot of digital effects and manipulation, which gives the whole thing a sense of hyper-realism. The art direction seems inspired in part by the 1951 animated feature, and John Tenniel’s illustrations from the novel. In short, it works really well visually. Musically, composer Danny Elfman delivers a fresh melodic score that sounds like a blend of Black Beauty and his “Serenada Schizophrena” concert work. Is Alice in Wonderland worth seeing? Yes, but not for the weak story – see it for the visuals and Helena Bonham Carter.