When director Tim Burton and Golden Globe award winner Johnny Depp team up for a film, the result is always magical. From 1990's Edward Scissorhands to the 2007 masterpiece Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the two have been more or less successful in every picture they've made together. Now uniting again for the seventh time, Depp and Burton have created an enchanting tale in Alice in Wonderland. Working more as a sequel to the title story (following the 1951 Disney animated feature closer than any other) rather than another iteration in itself, the film creates a fantastical world that feels alive and is brimming with imagination. It is a must see.
The film begins in the real world with Alice as a young girl (played by Mairi Ella Challen at this age). She tells her father that she thinks she's going mad because of a recurring dream she is having, but he tells her that some of the best people are mad. Flash forward thirteen years later and Alice is a young adult (played by Mia Wasikowska) and on her way to a party where she is asked for her hand in marriage by a gentleman she does not love. As he asks her, in front of seemingly hundreds of people no less, she spots a white rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) and she chases after it, only to fall down a hole into Wonderland. She quickly meets a colorful cast of characters including Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both played by Matt Lucas), Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), and of course, the Mad Hatter (played by Johnny Depp). She swears she's never been there before despite their insistence that she has. They believe she has come back to stop the evil Red Queen (played by Helena Bonham Carter) and take down her jabberwocky, a giant mythical beast, thus giving power of the land back to her sister, the kind White Queen (played by Anne Hathaway).
Alice in Wonderland is a timeless story and no matter whether you've read its source material, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," or seen one of the dozens of adaptations of it (including a 1976 porn version that, unfortunately, I've yet to get my hands on), you should be familiar with the gist of it, but you've never seen it like this. Alice's trip down the rabbit hole begins much like it usually does, with Alice growing taller and shrinking smaller before finally making it through the tiny door too little for her to crawl through, but Burton takes the rest of the film down a completely different path, one met with an unabashed amount of wonderment and a strong sense of peril, two things its previous Disney counterpart was missing.
That 1951 animated movie looked good, but was bogged down by poor musical numbers and a story that went nowhere. Alice's adventure never took a deeper meaning other than her desire to live in a more illusory world where she wouldn't succumb to boredom. This modern update--or more accurately labeled sequel--thankfully does more and you do feel like Alice has a purpose in this world. (Not to mention it does away with the singing.)
Still, I will admit that much like previous iterations, the story isn't as interesting as simply looking at the lush visuals on display. You may brush the story off as nonsense, but you'll still sit there in bewilderment at the film's artistry. It's bedazzling in a way that makes you feel like a kid again because the world you're looking at could only be realized by someone with a childlike sensibility, of which Burton, however dark it may be, has in spades. Every frame fills each corner of the screen with something remarkable to look at and the 3D makes it pop. The extra dimension gives added depth to an already stunning landscape, rarely resorting to the annoying things-flying-at-your-face gimmick too many 3D films employ.
Each character in the movie is wonderfully well rounded with distinct personalities and Burton juggles them perfectly, giving you enough time to meet and like (or hate) them. Depp, as great as an actor as he is, does not overpower the film because he's working with solid material (unlike Public Enemies where he was forced to work with mediocrity) and the actors around him do more than a capable job of playing against him. Wasikowska, who plays the titular character, does a particularly excellent job in her first starring role. I see big things on her horizon and much how Edward Scissorhands catapulted Depp into the spotlight, I expect Wasikowska to start gaining exposure after her star turn in this.
As better as this is when compared to the 1951 Disney animated version, it could have followed its footsteps in one regard. In that film, Alice quickly lands in Wonderland and when she finds her way out, the movie ends almost immediately. It never bothers with real world back story. This does a bit too much. I could have done without the real world affairs and found the whole engagement story to be a distraction. Although I like how she relates the people she knows in the real world to the zany creatures in Wonderland, it adds nothing in the way of depth.
That quibble aside, Alice in Wonderland is a real treat and will best be enjoyed by those still with the ability to dream and believe in the impossible.
Alice in Wonderland receives 4.5/5