Alice in Wonderland Review: Burton’s Finally Having Fun Again (B+)

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This review is mostly spoiler-free. I was less interested in analyzing the fine points of the Alice mythology than in talking about how this fantasy fits into the larger arc of Tim Burton’s career.

Was it Planet of the Apes?

Is that when Tim Burton started seeming derivative to me? The director who had long ago found the glory in the grotesque, the majesty in the macabre, had now emerged as a predictable, one-note pony?

To fully understand what I thought of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, we must start with my expectations. I wasn’t expecting much. After being lulled into the sweeping, nostalgic, brilliant fantasy of Big Fish, I watched Burton go bleak in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, shallow in Corpse Bride and then unleash a brutal assault on the viewer with Sweeney Todd. I realize all of these movies received positive reviews elsewhere, earning praise for Burton’s visuals and inventiveness. But am I really the only one who felt like the more paint Burton splashed on the canvas, the less of it really congealed in my imagination? The further he pushed his aesthetic, the less accesible his films became.

Then, when I started seeing the trailers for Alice in Wonderland, depicting a bombed-out, black-sky Wonderland, I started rolling my eyes. Tim Burton: Skewing wonderland in favor of a hellscape. Not only did it seem not fun to me, but it didn’t seem the least bit original. Burton was playing the same note, yet again; cue the familiar chorus. (More at Techland: Bloodthirsty Babes – the hottest witches of all-time)

And then I saw the movie. The delightfully giddy, silly, delirious movie. The movie where it seemed like Tim Burton wasn’t being “Tim Burton” but was just having fun again, scrambling up the expected pieces into a puzzle so new and bizarre that it blindsides you with its sentiment. I will write more about this for Monday’s Freeze Frame, but there is a moment in the middle of all these hijinks when Burton pulls up on the reigns, and captures a heartwarming aside between one hell of a crazy Mad Hatter and one wide-eyed aristocratic gir, who’s starting to feel more comfortable playing the hero. We see them from the front, and then from behind, gazing out at the moonlit landscape, as Alice says she doesn’t want to forget this crazy reality when she awakens. She wants to remember the Hatter, in all his Mad glory, with his frayed orange hair. And just for a moment, amid all the chaos, we have a poignant aside about the wonderful pleasures of our fantasies.

That was the moment that made me fall back in love with Tim Burton.

24 hours after the screening, what lingers with me most about this Alice in Wonderland romp are the specific, hilarious characterizations; Burton’s style is not at the expense of Alice’s personalities, but in their service. Permit me some very mild spoilers: Above ground, Alice is a strong, independent young woman fed up with routine existence. Everyone else expects her to fall in line, to be prim and proper, to accept the marriage proposal of a royal suitor. She flees instead down the rabbit hole – back into a dream world that seems strangely familiar to her. This plunge, by the way, might be the one sequence where Alice’s 3D feels like a valuable addition to the proceedings (in most scenes, the 3D effects aren’t worth dimming the picture so dramatically, through the 3D glasses)

Down here, there’s a real sense of discovery, as we meet the crew. Johnny Depp has a field day as the Mad Hatter, in a performance that makes this character seem genuinely off his rocker. He flies off the handle into fits of rage, but then gets so excited about creating hats for the evil Queen of Hearts that he almost forgets he’s a prisoner, chained to the floor. Helen Bonham Carter, as the queen, meanwhile, really steals the movie. She’s vicious, but ragingly insecure, and Carter walks that fine line between being a terrifying wicked witch and just a hilarious, bitter sister of Anne Hathaway’s so-perfect-she’s-irritating White Queen.

There’s the skittish and bug-eyed March Hare, who is in a constant state of caffeine overload. There’s the croquet game with the cute little tied-up hedgehog, playing the part of the ball. There’s the dim-witted Tweedledum and Tweedledee, grunting as they thump around in the background. And then the Queen of Heart’s lover, played by Crispin Glover – a pathetic, clingy, petty little man who would rather kiss her hand than lose his head. There’s even the blue caterpillar, puff puff puffing away, and of course the Jabberwocky which has been more and more prevalent in the modern variations of Alice. (More at Techland: Percy Jackson and the all-time best sci-fi child heroes)

Now we’ve seen Burton mess with other franchises, altering storylines and inverting themes. But with Alice in Wonderland, he clearly feels a kinship for this universe, and the themes of fantasy, imagination and escape that are at play. In the friendship between Alice and the freaky Mad Hatter, there’s a hint of Edward Scissorhands. In his barren Wonderland, the focus is less on the cryptic facade than about the fact that so many characters here are trying to break free of this drab existence. They want something better. Just like Big Fish.

Alice in Wonderland is about this motley crew, how one frightened and overwhelmed girl learns how to team up with those around her – and return the kindnesses that she is afforded. It’s a coming of age stroll, shifted from a college campus to an otherworldly dimension. And through each encounter, I felt as if I was watching Alice gain a sense of courage, confidence and pride. For many kids in the audience, this will be a film about confronting your fears and embracing the challenge.

Over the past few days, I’ve been surprised by the number of people who have asked me about the film. Clearly there’s curiosity out there, but also a fair bit of hesitation. There’s skepticism in their questions. And as I have shrugged in my replies, I haven’t tried to be negative. Tim Burton hasn’t reinvented the wheel here – a la Scissorhands or Batman – but he hasn’t interfered so much that he’s gutted the franchise of its magic (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory). He’s taken a familiar story, lovingly molded it with state-of-the-art technology, and used his fascination with darkness as a way of creating contrast, helping us to see just how colorful and indelible Lewis Carroll’s creations were. He’s preserved the original, but then made it even more revealing in his telling.

More on Techland:

Hive Mind: What We’re Looking Forward To In March

A Practical Guide to … Traveling Between Worlds

Tron Trailer: Your Reason To Get To Alice On Time

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