Friday, March 5, 2010

Alice in Wonderland: It's a wonder!

Alice in Wonderland (2010) • View trailer for Alice in Wonderland
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for monster-battling violence
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 3.5.10
Buy DVD: Alice in Wonderland • Buy Blu-Ray: Alice in Wonderland [Blu-ray]

The knowledge that a new version of Alice in Wonderland would involve director Tim Burton, star Johnny Depp and scripter Linda Woolverton  who worked on Disney's Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King and Mulan  seemed a match made in heaven.

I couldn't imagine a trio of artistic sensibilities better suited to Lewis Carroll's wildly imaginative and sneakily subversive classics.
Alice (Mia Wasikowska, center) approaches her destiny -- to face the
Jabberwocky on a field of battle -- as the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and
White Queen (Anne Hathaway) offer words of encouragement, in Tim Burton's
gleefully opulent handling of Alice in Wonderland.

And, indeed, this re-booted Alice in Wonderland is an eye-popping delight: a perfect showcase for Burton's zany visual panache, Depp's whimsically eccentric performance style and Woolverton's blend of fairy-tale affectations with modern sensibilities.

Burton's film isn't actually an adaptation of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland; it's a mash-up of that 1865 novel and its 1872 sequel, Through the Looking Glass, and What Alice Found There, along with the nonsense poem  "Jabberwocky"  that is part of the latter book. Additionally, this interpretation of Alice takes place a bit later, after our heroine has matured into a young woman on the verge of marriage, who suffers from a recurring dream that involves all sorts of strange creatures from a dimly remembered realm.

This changes the story dynamic, transforming our protagonist from a mostly helpless little girl — who merely witnesses assorted strange events  into a resourceful, kick-ass action heroine who takes charge of her own destiny.

Not that she starts out that way. Even this more mature Alice, a practical young woman, spends a good deal of time believing that she's having another bad dream, instead of actually living it.

Events begin amid the boorish British aristocracy, where Alice (Mia Wasikowska, appropriately plucky)  having lost the father she loved dearly, and therefore forced into unpalatable options  receives a proposal of marriage from a titled lout not fit to lace up this intelligent, high-spirited young woman's corset. (Not that she believes in wearing such a pointless clothing accessory.)

Burton has great fun with this prologue, framing the gaggle of aristocratic hangers-on in a manner that speaks disapproving volumes. We've seen Burton do this many times before, stretching back to the judgmental sport he had with the suburban twits who served as neighbors to the much kinder family that embraced Edward Scissorhands.

Fortunately, Alice is able to postpone this fate worse than death after seeing a waist-coated white rabbit bounding through the surrounding shrubbery. She gives chase, falls down an impressively deep hole  a great sequence that out-performs every other plunge we've seen the girl take, in previous movies  and winds up in a room of many doors, a glass table and a single key.

Oh, and a vial with a label that says "Drink Me," and a little cake with a similar label that says "Eat Me."

Burton and Woolverton have great fun dealing with the wardrobe malfunctions resulting from Alice's rapid changes in size, a running gag that continues through the entire film. (The most amusing temporary solution occurs when she's hidden in a teapot.)

Now in a gaily colored terrain its denizens call Underland, Alice is confronted by an assortment of strange creatures  the corpulent and oddly infantile Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both played by Matt Lucas), the fretful White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen), the plucky little Dormouse (voiced by Barbara Windsor), the mysterious and intangible Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) and the critical, disapproving Blue Caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman)  all of whom worry that she's not the right Alice.

Before our poor heroine can wrap her head around this bit of weirdness, the group is attacked by the ferocious, razor-clawed Bandersnatch (not all that frumious, though) and its winged companion, the Jubjub Bird, both controlled by a pack of armored cards.

Alice survives this encounter and flees, eventually arriving at Underland's oldest established permanent tea party, presided over by the Mad Hatter (Depp), the March Hare (voiced by Paul Whitehouse) and the aforementioned Dormouse. Thanks to a bit of back-story from the Hatter, Alice learns that much of Underland has been savaged by the nasty Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her army  and most particularly by the fearsome Jabberwocky  because of a longstanding spat with her kinder, gentler and more deservedly regal sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway).

Many of our sympathetic characters wind up in the Red Queen's clutches; Alice, stung by the accusation that she's no longer "such a much," decides to do something about it.

But she still refuses, despite the promise of a prophetic scroll, to even contemplate her supposed role in the slaying of the Jabberwocky. This seems quite reasonable: As brought to life here, based faithfully on John Tenniel's original illustration, the Jabberwocky is a huge, fire- and lightning-breathing nightmare.

Woolverton's solid narrative propels the story smartly along, but you'll be tempted, more than once, to overlook plot details in an effort to process all the marvelous little bits of business that Burton and his production team cram into every scene. (More than most, this is a film you'll need to see again.) All the furniture and fixtures in the Red Queen's castle, for example, are held in place by long-suffering animals; even chandeliers are suspended by exhausted birds that frantically flap their wings to remain in place.

Take a close look, as well, at the sycophants who make up the Red Queen's court: all of them disfigured  flapping ears, bulbous noses, ludicrously pendulous bustlines -— in a manner that makes them just a bit uglier than the queen herself, who sports a grotesquely outsized head.

The relative levels of size and scale used throughout are another jaw-dropping, special-effects miracle; even throwaway scenes  as when an extra-large Alice cups the Mad Hatter's head in her huge hands  look persuasively real. Alice's morale-boosting mantra is to remember that it's wise to believe in "six impossible things before breakfast"; well, this film is laden with scores of persuasively realized impossible things, and is all the more charming for it.

Depp's Mad Hatter is a stitch: yet another in his long line of goofily endearing misfits (but wholly different from any of the others). The Hatter speaks in an intense lisp and tends to get overly agitated, until somebody talks him down; the characterization is alternately woeful and hilarious, and turns on Depp's well-timed inflection of a single word.

Bonham Carter makes a deliciously waspish villainess, her pouty features all but concealed beneath heavy makeup and her wild, heart-shaped hair. Her tantrums are quite a sight, and her eyes narrow in the manner of a frustrated 5-year-old every time some minor slight makes her bellow, "Off with his head!"

Depp and Carter notwithstanding, though, the film's best performance may be turned in by the unseen Fry, whose mischievous and melodious handling of the intangible Cheshire Cat is beyond compare.

Crispin Glover is appropriately malignant as the Red Queen's primary henchman, the Knave of Hearts, and Timothy Small gives voice to the stalwart Bayard, a bloodhound supposedly in the Red Queen's service, who instead does what he can to help Alice and her friends.

Danny Elfman's alternately capricious and energetic score is just right for these wacky proceedings: particularly the propulsive theme that drives the various chases, with its echoes of the composer's work on Batman.

Bottom line: It was a frabjous day when Burton & Co. elected to put their stamp on Alice in Wonderland, and the resulting film gyres and gimbels most appropriately in the wabe and tulgey wood. Callooh! Callay!

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