Make no mistake, Alice in Wonderland is not a children’s movie. Children would enjoy it, but much of the humour and references will be too subtle for them to truly appreciate. Assuming the audience has read Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Burton draws upon an assortment of characters from both books, including the Red Queen and the White Queen, which culminates in the most ridiculous chess-piece vs. playing-card battle that the fine creatures of Wonderland have to offer.
In all honesty, if it has been a while since you’ve read the books, a refresher may be in order.
A true Tim Burton/Johnny Depp collaboration in the vein of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, the cinematography for Alice is simply stunning, especially with regards to its breathtaking colour palette, intricate anthropomorphic creatures, and fantastical digital landscapes. The costumes are nonsensically ingenious, the make-up is appropriately outrageous, and when combined with an original twist on the traditional tales, Alice becomesa veritable feast for the eyes, and for the ages.
In Burton’s vision, this film represents Alice’s first visit back to Wonderland after a 13-year absence. During that dreadful time, The Red Queen has destroyed the Wonderlands, and the White Queen is in need of a champion to help reclaim her throne. Oh yes, a prophecy has also decreed that the champion must be Alice, but unfortunately, the girl in question has lost all memory of Wonderland.
Bringing the inhabitants of Wonderland back to life is a superb all-star cast of characters. Johnny Depp plays the helplessly over-the-top Mad Hatter, while Anne Hathaway balances things out with her subtle portrayal of the morally grey and questionably sane White Queen. Helena Bonham Carter delivers a hilarious and oddly sympathetic performance as the Red Queen, who is an amalgam of the Queen of Hearts from one noveland the Red Queen from the other. Although his face is never shown, Alan Rickman steals his share of CG scenes as the silky voice behind Absolem, the blue caterpillar. Only Mia Wasikowska falters slightly – although she fares well as Alice, she is often eclipsed by the high-quality live-action, computer-generated, and voice-over characters that continually surrounds her.
That being said, the aesthetic beauty and brilliant acting do an admirable job in hiding the several script-related flaws. In particular, it is difficult to understand the inconsistencies of both Alice’s initial denials and her inevitable final acceptance. If she so strongly believes everything in Wonderland to be a dream, then why is she so intent on rescuing her allies?
Other troubling details include The Red Queen’s slightly fuzzy rise to power, which is only partially touched upon and never fully explained – as are the explanations behind The White Queen’s escape/banishment and her potential implication in certain shady dealings. What’s more, the odd hint of romantic undertones between the Hatter and Alice is mildly disturbing, for any number of reasons – but potentially relevant when one considers the, um, interesting past of Mr. Lewis Carroll.
Lastly, although the method of The Red Queen’s downfall is indeed prophesied, she somehow does almost nothing of substance to actively prevent it. But then again, it is hard to blame The Red Queen for that, since prophecy fulfillment is a pretty complicated bit of business. In the end, all of this unrealized potential leaves Alice in Wonderland perhaps one finely-crafted half-hour away from true movie magic.