Burton's 'Alice': A Curious Kind Of Wonderful

Helena Bonham Carter i i

Helena Bonham Carter plays the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll once described the character as "a Fury ... her passion must be cold and calm — she must be formal and strict, yet not unkindly; pedantic to the 10th degree, the concentrated essence of all governesses!" Walt Disney Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Walt Disney Pictures
Helena Bonham Carter

Helena Bonham Carter plays the Red Queen in Alice in Wonderland. Lewis Carroll once described the character as "a Fury ... her passion must be cold and calm — she must be formal and strict, yet not unkindly; pedantic to the 10th degree, the concentrated essence of all governesses!"

Walt Disney Pictures

Alice in Wonderland

  • Director: Tim Burton
  • Genre: Science Fiction/Fantasy
  • Running Time: 109 minutes
Rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar.

With: Helena Bohnam Carter, Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas

To enjoy Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, you'll need to accept that it's not by any stretch Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland or its follow-up, Through the Looking Glass, but a fancy Hollywood hybrid. Yes, it uses Alice's characters and motifs, but the plot is one part C.S. Lewis to one part The Wizard of Oz. You could call it "C.S. Lewis Carroll's Alice in Narnia with Johnny Depp as the Mad Scarecrow."

Carroll's delicious satire of English logic and manners has been turned into an action-packed, feminist coming-of-age story. Alice, played by the Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, is a young Victorian woman of 19 facing the marriage proposal of an unattractive prig. She falls down a rabbit hole — for the second time, the first time was when she was 6 — and arrives in Wonderland — or, as the locals correct her, Underland — and no one believes she's the same Alice. But if she is that Alice, a number of characters tell her, she has a destiny: to ride into battle on "the frabjous day" against the homicidally petulant Red Queen and her winged Jabberwock.

If you can get past the Hollywood revisions, Alice in Wonderland is rather wonderful — or is that "underful?" Burton indulges in his penchant for disproportion, so that nothing and no one in Underland quite fits — least of all our heroine, who becomes very small, then very big, then teensy enough to hide inside the Mad Hatter's hat, then vastly out of scale with the court of the Red Queen, where she's greeted as a visiting giant.

As that queen — who's more like the first book's Queen of Hearts — Helena Bonham Carter sports a double-sized head atop a normal-sized body, suggesting an enormous, overdressed infant. The Queen's henchman, the Knave of Hearts, is Crispin Glover's noggin set atop a spindly, elongated frame. It's a tad disappointing when Anne Hathaway's beneficent White Queen turns out to have normal proportions, though her pallor is unearthly and her red lips rimmed in ghoulish black.

Another Take On Burton's 'Alice'

As anyone can tell you who has endured the lines in New York for the Museum of Modern Art's Burton exhibition, there are few artists who can better mix the circus and the sarcophagus, the Magic Kingdom and the mausoleum: For him, there can be no true beauty without a touch — or a ton — of decay. Underland is full of dead, twisted trees and giant moldy mushrooms. The movie is in 3-D in many theaters, but Burton doesn't seem interested in immersing you the way James Cameron does in Avatar. His hedges and topiary create orderly layers of space, and the foreground figures often resemble cardboard cutouts — which strikes me as exactly how it should be, given the characters' playing-card origins.

Johnny Depp i i

Johnny Depp told the Los Angeles Times that his character was "poisoned — very, very poisoned [by mercury]." The chemical was used by hatters to make felt — and was often absorbed through the skin. Walt Disney Pictures hide caption

itoggle caption Walt Disney Pictures
Johnny Depp

Johnny Depp told the Los Angeles Times that his character was "poisoned — very, very poisoned [by mercury]." The chemical was used by hatters to make felt — and was often absorbed through the skin.

Walt Disney Pictures

His usual leading man, Johnny Depp, reportedly decided that the mercury poisoning that made many 19th-century hatters so mad would be evoked by his phosphorescent green eyes and Bozo the Clown orange hair, and that his skin tone and accent would shift according to his character's mood. His tea party with the Dormouse and March Hare and Cheshire Cat takes place on what looks like a bombed-out landscape.

Depp's performance doesn't quite come together, but he brings an infectious zest to everything he does that makes him seem like a summer-stock actor crying, "Let's put on a show!" And Bonham-Carter's Queen is a scream, even if it owes quite a bit to Miranda Richardson's bratty Elizabeth I in the BBC sitcom Blackadder.

The fully computer-generated characters are not especially memorable. That suggests that Burton, for all his graphic genius, responds most fully to flesh-and-blood performers. He made the right call in casting Wasikowska, instead of a swan-necked Keira Knightley type. This Alice isn't the book's enchanting logician. But Wasikowska, as she proved on the HBO show In Treatment, can seem at one moment overdefended and the next poetically transparent. Burton, bless him, knows you can't computer-generate a soul.

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