By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
Improper English or not, Alice’s estimation of her escapade being “curiouser and curiouser” might also apply to the uneasiness which permeates director Tim Burton’s variation of Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” All the king’s horses and all the king’s men, artistically speaking, couldn’t satisfyingly reconstruct the classic.
Maybe it’s a matter of the obvious being too obvious. You would think the existentially gifted Burton is our realm’s best choice to convey the signature literary nonsense Mr. Carroll so enigmatically purveyed. But then one might fail to note that the original work is so iconic in its uniqueness that it makes small anything but a literal interpretation.
Granted, while etching his “Alice in Wonderland” from the Victorian author’s Alice books via an adaptation by screenwriter Linda Woolverton, Burton imparts much less of his imprint than usual. But while doubtless a respectful nod to the hallowed material, it points out his tragic dilemma. Compromise is hardly as tolerated in art as it is in politics.
Hence the only creative option left the filmmaker is special effects, taken here to the third power through the razzamatazz of 3-D. Everybody’s doing it, you know, whether it benefits the effort or not. And indeed there’s a lot to be said for the occasionally witty eyeful the resurgent craze offers. In this case it’s a new reason to hum the scenery.
Maybe the process is only a fad, like sound or color. Which is all well and good if you’ve come to the movie house to see butterflies flit right before your nose. However, matched to a narrative hard-pressed to get everything told in a period of time that will suit a PG audience of ever-decreasing attention span, it is equal parts novelty and distraction.
Happily, the fantastical portrayals are less difficult to discern from the muddling firmament. Johnny Depp is a pip as the Mad Hatter, realized in a high relief that philosophically matches his wild visual impact. Save that he’s an agent of insurrection, the real delight is in not knowing exactly what he is.
Projecting her equally outrageous persona from behind makeup and gosh knows what other filmic magic is Helena Bonham Carter as the villainous Red Queen, bulbous head and all. Doing her bidding, Crispin Glover does a good Basil Rathbone as the Knave of Hearts. And Anne Hathaway is appropriately angelic and gossamer as the White Queen.
Managing to keep a semblance of sanity while challenged by the reverie-inspired land at the bottom of the rabbit hole, Mia Wasikowska is just about everything we expect of an Alice. British and upper crust, but too smart to be swayed by convention for convention’s sake, her adventure begins when she is expected to marry Mr. So Totally Wrong.
But while conveniently slipping down into the world of white rabbits, blue caterpillars and the other fanciful denizens who inhabit the recurring dream, her stay is somewhat longer this go-round, or so it seems. Years ago, prior to her Dad’s passing, she described it to him, explaining that time was quite a different thing in these mysterious journeys.
Whether or not Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, the mathematics professor at Oxford University better known as Lewis Carroll, was on to the theory of relativity or merely prepping us for the psychedelic ‘60’s, there’s no denying the radical sentiment. With the Industrial Revolution in motion, social upheaval and new ideas were imminent.
Thus Alice, put upon to wed a dumpy nobleman of society’s choice, not only escapes said fate, but becomes a catalyst of change in her brave new world. To accommodate the trip, Carroll spins new mores and folkways at every turn. And if the chemists can invent new ways to crack coal for its energy, well, then he can add a word or two to the lexicon.
Pity is, you can almost see the seams between the storyboards as the film conservatively moves its revolutionary message from scene to scene. It lags. But maybe not for its target audience. Going on the theory that children possess natural hallucinogens until which time they fill out a W-4 form, one must not underestimate what they may or may not dig.
Although the rows of urchins I saw it with took a while to settle in, ultimately they were drawn into the one-two punch of rebellion and 3-D. Still, parents should heed the PG rating. While the violence isn’t why I cried to go home, kids under ten are likely to find that, even if served by a great Mad Hatter, “Alice in Wonderland” isn’t their cup of tea.
“Alice in Wonderland,” rated PG, is a Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures release directed by Tim Burton and stars Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Mia Wasikowska. Running time: 108 minutes
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