About a year ago, Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” premiered, in all its glorious, grey-washed, yet intense color and with the trappings of 3D, vines, tendrils, Jabberwocky, and all. I wanted to see it on opening day (not an effort I usually make). My husband was working, so I went out to our local multiplex in early afternoon, put on my big plastic glasses, and settled in for the experience. Despite a fairly full theater, having no particular companion concentrated my full attention on the screen. Soon, just like Alice running after the White Rabbit, I was running after Alice and tumbling through the hole, down the hollow tree into Wonderland. Tim Burton’s Wonderland.
The color palette grabbed me before anything else, which makes me delighted to see that “Alice in Wonderland” has received three Academy Award nominations for elements of its artistic achievement: Art Direction, Visual Effects, and Costume Design. Only in the Costume Design category is it favored for a win, according to the oddsmakers. I think Johnny Depp’s performance went much deeper than his Mad Hatter’s Hat and makeup; nevertheless, I am glad to see the costumes recognized. I also realize that some of the best films have only garnered artistic or technical Oscars, but were better appreciated later for their excellence overall. A case in point: Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope. I am sorry that Oscar voters did not place “Alice” among its 10 nominees for Best Picture, since it was my favorite of the year’s films and the box-office winner worldwide.
On Oscar night this Sunday, February 27, 2011, I will be remembering “Alice in Wonderland” with great affection for that first magical screening last March. In subsequent months, I found that “Alice in Wonderland” is a film that bears many repeated viewings on cable or DVD, even without 3D, and it seems more perfect and harmoniously constructed each time I see it. But here let me share the review I wrote that day last year, in the passionate throes of first viewing:
Moonlight Becomes Her: A Review of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland
by Lucy Pollard-Gott (March 5, 2010)
Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland looks and feels like a Tim Burton movie, not a pastel-hued, scene-by-scene rendering of Lewis Carroll’s immortal Alice books. But in the end, that is the strength of this bold, visually stunning film. Carroll’s mythmaking and, more importantly, his characters prove they are vibrantly alive by how well they survive and thrive in such transformation.
Transformed indeed. Alice (played by winsome and willowy Mia Wasikowska) has grown up to age 20, but is still dreamy and imaginative, still questioning. After she no longer has the protection of her understanding father, recently deceased, she is nearly pushed into a stifling aristocratic marriage that seems designed to quash her mind and her freedom. When she spies the white, waist-coated Rabbit, she flees in pursuit of him rather than accept such a proposal. Next to that, a frightening fall through an almost endless rabbit hole seems like a welcome relief. As objects and images whiz past her, and she tumbles past them, her descent can’t help but evoke Dorothy Gale’s equally frightening ascent, when caught up by the Kansas cyclone. There is even a flying bed, reminding us of Alice’s recurrent thought that, surely, this must all be a dream.
Alice lands in the faithfully rendered locked room, and by means of just the right key and drink (“Drink me”) and cake (“Eat me”), she emerges–for the first time, she thinks–into Wonderland. This much we expect. Yet this world is not the Wonderland of our childhood memories, and it’s certainly no smiling Oz, albeit a bit more colorful than anything we’ve seen so far in the film. We don’t usually think of Wonderland as a twilight world, even when it is threatened by such creatures as the Jabberwocky or the frumious Bandersnatch. But Burton’s misty and mysterious art direction bathes Alice in moonlight and shadow, and blond as she is, she still projects a liminal beauty between light and dark.
Alice has forgotten, or repressed, her childhood adventures beyond the looking glass, and so she must figure out where she is and even who she is, as she meets one creature after another who takes her measure and finds her wanting in comparison to the old (that is, younger) Alice they remember. Can she really be the one whose return they have been anticipating? As in most adaptations, Carroll’s creatures from several books (Alice in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass, and even a little Hunting of the Snark thrown in) all meet in a conflated jumble to populate the movie Wonderland. After all, who would wish to wait for a sequel to see Tweedledum and Tweedledee?
But as soon as Alice follows the Cheshire Cat, languidly voiced by Stephen Fry, and is reunited with the Mad Hatter (a resplendently batty Johnny Depp), he will lead her to the site of an old attack by the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter) who snatched the crown from her more pacific sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Burton’s ruined Wonderland is beautiful in its devastation, a type of landscape he does so well (as in The Corpse Bride or even The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, also starring Depp). The Hatter tells Alice that the White Queen needs her to remember who she is and champion the realm, defeating the Red Queen’s Jabberwocky with the Vorpal sword (because of Carroll, a standard issue weapon familiar to many role-play gamers). The moments deep in the burned forest when Depp recites snatches of the “Jabberwocky” poem lift the scene to a higher dimension, 3D or not.
Stayne, the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), ambushes the Hatter, Alice, and their creature friends but captures only the Hatter. Alice is still unsure about herself, and definitely not sure that she wants anything to do with the dread Jabberwocky, but she knows one thing for certain–she wants to go and rescue Johnny Depp!
How she chooses to deal with the quest laid upon her will determine the quality of the adulthood she has earned. Even with an older Alice, the film retains a certain playfulness, though a little grisly at times; be sure to look for poignant moments that flash back to the child Alice. This film may not satisfy purists, but it is purely magical.
Alice ranks 25th on The Fictional 100 by Lucy Pollard-Gott.