Like Alice Kingsleigh, I believe as many as six impossible things before breakfast. But I’m still finding it impossible to believe that a movie as marvelous as Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” couldn’t come up with a better closing act.
Based on the Lewis Carroll novels “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass,” Burton’s “Alice” takes the story beyond the dreamland of a young girl and transforms it into a coming-of-age tale that still pays homage to the original material.
The film opens with a glimpse of Carroll’s Alice, a six-year-old girl tormented by dreams of a place called Wonderland, but quickly transitions to reveal Burton’s present-day Alice, a 19-year-old on her way to a Victorian party in the wake of her father’s death.
It’s clear early on that Alice, played by Mia Wasikowska in her first lead role, doesn’t quite fit into Victorian society, contemptuous of social customs such as corsets and dances. At the beginning of the film, she seems content to simply suffer in silence. But when the son of her late father’s business partner asks her to marry him, Alice must finally speak and choose whether she will conform to expectations or assert her independence.
Unable to decide, Alice catches sight of a white rabbit running into the woods and takes the opportunity to flee, leaving the party and falling down the not-so-proverbial rabbit hole into a computer-generated fantasy land.
Yet this is not the Wonderland we’ve been expecting from our exposure to the original Carroll works and the ‘50s Disney adaptation — rather, it’s a dark, twisted “Underland,” ruled by the iron fist and big head of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).
Alice soon learns she was brought back to Underland to fulfill a prophesy that “The Alice” would return to slay the Jabberwocky, a dragon-like creature controlled by the Red Queen that keeps her sister, the usurped White Queen (Anne Hathaway), from reclaiming her throne.
Unfortunately, Alice has absolutely no intention of killing anything, much less a Jabberwocky, believing Underland to be nothing more than another of the dreams which have haunted her for her whole life. However, when she is found by the Red Queen’s Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), she has no choice but to flee and join the rebellion, led by the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp).
The film’s visual appeal goes without saying. The nonhuman characters, like the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat, are brilliantly animated, but it’s the touch-ups on the human actors that really stand out. Depp’s Hatter is given an ever-changing Technicolor makeover and Bonham Carter’s head has been enlarged to three times its size to emphasize her mania.
But the acting is just as remarkable as the digital enhancements. Wasikowska is easily the movie’s breakout star, playing Alice as a driven young woman with a calm, collected nature that seems just on the right side of madness.
However, Bonham Carter’s performance is a close second. She brings a level of depth to the Queen beyond simple insanity, especially in one scene where she opens up to her Knave and questions whether it is better to be feared or to be loved.
The remainder of the cast is excellent as well — save Depp, whose Mad Hatter is a little too Jack Sparrow — but, unfortunately, the script doesn’t give them the same chance to shine.
The best example of this is Hathaway’s character, the scarcely-seen White Queen. Early on, she’s depicted as hiding behind a façade of happiness, which slips when her retinue is not around. But when Alice arrives at her castle, the Queen retains her fake demeanor, making Hathaway’s earlier acting a waste.
The movie’s final act is really its downfall. Once Alice obtains the Vorpal Sword needed to kill the Jabberwocky, the plot devolves into a stereotypical battle scene orchestrated to quickly resolve the Queens’ war. While the real-world epilogue somewhat redeems the film, you leave feeling as though you and Wonder/Underland deserve a better ending than the one you got.
Still, the film as a whole is magnificent, visually and otherwise, and it’s nice to see a film based on an older work that isn’t just a horrid remake. So, while you may want to cut the final battle from the film with a “snicker-snack,” “Alice” is still worth a trip down the rabbit hole.