If you’ve been to the movie theater recently, no doubt you’ve seen the rather unsettling posters of Johnny Depp with teased-out red hair, pale makeup, and electric green eyes. You were probably, like me, repelled by this new interpretation of the Mad Hatter…and when I first heard about Tim Burton’s live-action remake of “Alice in Wonderland” I dismissed it as a whimsical nightmare come to 3D life. But a couple of trailers later, images started popping up of an armored Alice toting a huge sword and battling hordes of playing-card-soldiers. Curiosity overcame my initial distaste.
To summarize the movie in one sentence: it’s a slightly psychotic reinterpretation of the Chronicles of Narnia.
19-year-old Alice Kingsley, narrowly escaping the cloying attentions of a disgusting suitor, falls down the rabbit hole again and ends up in Underland. (She heard the name wrong on her first visit). It rapidly becomes clear that Burton’s “Alice” isn’t a retelling of the original story – rather, it’s a sequel of sorts that combines elements from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” “Through the Looking-Glass,” and “Jabberwocky.” As she ventures further into Underland, familiar characters – Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, the smoking caterpillar, and the Dodo Bird – start reappearing.
Underland is greatly changed from her last visit. The tyrannical, bulbous-headed Red Queen (played by a maniacal Helena Bonham Carter) rules the land with an iron fist after usurping it from her sister, the White Queen. Of course, no villain works alone…and the Queen is backed by the Jabberwock (a huge dragon), the Bandersnatch (a monster somewhere between a bear, a bulldog, and a shark), and the sinister Knave of Hearts.
Alice makes her way to the ruins of the Tea Party, where the Mad Hatter and March Hare are awaiting her. She quickly learns it is her destiny to confront the Jabberwock and restore the White Queen to power – that is, if she is the “real Alice” and not just an imitator. From this point on, the story becomes very reminiscent of the “Chronicles of Narnia” – a coming-of-age empowerment tale set in a fantastical universe.
As its title would imply, the film is a visual wonderland. Surreal, quasi-gothic imagery fills the screen – at once both mesmerizing and unsettling. The Mad Hatter’s tea party is an almost hallucinatory sequence that revels in dystopian fantasy. Images of broken teacups, a decaying windmill, and the mangy March Hare shrieking “You’re all late for TEA!” all combine into a disturbing panorama. The mashup of live-action and animation creates a product that’s both brilliant and chilling. (I personally didn’t think the 3D added that much to the movie, but maybe that’s just me.)
The acting is where the film really shines. From Mia Wasikowska’s breakthrough performance as Alice to Johnny Depp’s slightly-deranged Mad Hatter, the characters feel entirely believable despite the oddity of their surroundings. (As a nice touch, Alan Rickman – better known as Severus Snape – cameos as the voice of the sagacious caterpillar Absolem.) Alice’s feelings of uncertainty feel entirely genuine, as does the Red Queen’s megalomania. When the Queen shrieks “Off with his head!” there’s really no doubt that she intends to carry through on her threats.
The movie errs, however, in its attempt to produce a “family-friendly” film. This is by no means a movie for the sensitive or easily disturbed – while actual instances of violence are fairly muted, there are a fair number of grisly moments that feel truly shocking in a movie marketed to “all ages.” And it’s worth mentioning that Underland itself is just plain nightmarish at points. The average person will probably fall into one of two categories: those who enjoy the movie and those who loathe it…there really isn’t much of a middle ground. “Alice in Wonderland” will be either fascinating or horrifying, depending on the viewer.
I was expecting there to be a lot of worldview elements in a fantasy film such as this – however, spiritual considerations were pretty much a non-issue. Aside from a few individualistic assertions by Alice, such as “I make my own path!” there really aren’t a lot of philosophical implications. The story is very much a cut-and-dried battle between good and evil, without much nuance. (Personally, I wished that some of the villains had been a little more complex.) It doesn’t have the spiritual richness of the “Narnia” films, and feels fairly shallow in the spiritual department.
So should you see it?
If you like fantasy-adventure films with surreal visuals and a large helping of dark humor, you’ll love “Alice in Wonderland.” If, on the other hand, you’re completely turned off by the film’s blending of innocence with the macabre, this is definitely not the movie for you. It’s not the best movie of its kind, but it’s definitely not the worst, either.
An inventive, yet occasionally unsettling, dark fantasy.
Normalized Score: 4.6