by Richard von Busack
LAST YEAR’S Coraline by Henry Selick, with its locked tiny chambers and prowling sardonic cat, still feels like magic. Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is more of a fashion show, which may be the point. This Alice in Wonderland will likely be the defining event of the Gothic Lolitas’ generation.
Burton, who worked with Selick and got most of the credit for The Nightmare Before Christmas, now does his 3-D live-action Alice as a sequel to Lewis Carroll’s original. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast) is sensibly trying to do a Wicked on the famous tale—within the safety zone of Disney, which would prefer Alice to be another Disney Princess.
Mirroring Wicked is the rivalry between women, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and the ghostly yet sugary White Queen (Anne Hathaway). The White Queen is a witch of sorts, working with grisly spells; the Red Queen is the execution-loving dictator of a plundered “Underland,” which the young Alice once mispronounced with a “W.”
In early Victorian times, the fatherless Alice (Mia Wasikowska), almost 20, is about to be affianced to a chinless aristo, Hamish (Leo Bill), by family pressure. Alice’s (badly phrased) taste for fantasy is dismaying; Hamish urges her to keep it to herself. But then the familiar rabbit arrives to lead Alice to the world of her childhood reveries.
The creatures are skeptical: she doesn’t look like the Alice they all remember. And the real Alice will have a quest to perform. The Oraculum, the Bayeux Tapestry of Underland, foretells that Alice will slay the Jabberwocky. (That should be Jabberwock, yes?) Once the dragon is dead, the land will be free of the dreaded, hydrocephalic Red Queen.
The female power in this movie is worth celebrating. Carroll’s Alice appeals uniquely to adolescent girls who are never certain what size they are in real life: grown-up or childish. Using an older Alice removes questions of sexuality and menace that might prove sticky. And yet that unease is the very point that has drawn fans and postmodern rewriters alike.
Wasikowska is a strong asset to this Alice: a subtle, full-grown beauty who adds a physical reality to the tale of dreams. A touch of romance between her and Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter arises. Depp’s marvelous flexibility comes through clearly. The makeup is unsettling: carrot-colored hair; staring, too-large tiger-green eyes; a dialect that changes at the drop of a hat. Depp is an actor who twines around our memories of actors gone before: here the memory seems to be of Peter Sellers.
Alice in Wonderland revels in its cameos. Matt Lucas’ two Tweedles are Cockney Cabbage Patch kids. The blue-green Cheshire Cat, avatar of particle physics, has a portly, insinuating voice (by Stephen Fry) and several hundred teeth. Alan Rickman shows off a fine sneer as the Caterpillar. Bonham Carter’s snarling, willful queen is a brat whom custom never stales.
I’m a helpless Tim Burton fan, and I’m not sorry I went to Alice in Wonderland. But the colors here aren’t state of the art; they go from tinted postcard to faded bed sheet. Compared to Coraline’s solitude and thoughtfulness, Alice in Wonderland is a forced march. The 3-D makes us jump with tossed crockery and the spears of the army of cards, but it doesn’t add real depth to the visuals. The finale turns out to be familiar dragon slaying; ultimately, it’s not just Alice who has been here before.