I wonder if Tim Burton has a monkey butler at home. I ask this because I think anyone who can come up with the kind of flights of fancy he puts on screen probably has a monkey butler and other strange and wonderful things kicking around the house to feed his imagination. His latest film, a retelling of “Alice in Wonderland,” benefits from his rich visual style.
Using the original Lewis Carroll stories as a stepping stone, in this reimagined version of the classic tale Alice Kingsley (Mia Wasikowska) is 19 years old. She’s a dreamer in a world of pragmatists who, on the advice of her late father, tries to imagine six impossible things before breakfast each day. This sets her at odds with almost everyone, including her family who think marrying her off to the churlish and haughty Lord Hamish will settle her down. At their engagement party she flees his very public proposal, disappearing into the garden and falling down a rabbit hole into Underland. It’s her second trip to the place she calls Wonderland. Ten years previous she been there but has no memory of it. On this visit she meets an odd assortment of characters including the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), Absolem, the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) and the strangest one of all, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). They convince her she needs to help them overthrow the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) by slaying the terrifying Jabberwock (Christopher Lee).
Burton has always made films about outsiders—think Edward Scissorhands, Ed Wood Jr. and Willy Wonka—and in Alice he has found another one to focus his camera on. As a headstrong young woman who doesn’t quite fit the mold of Victorian England she a perfect character for Burton. Like his most famous characters she lives in a world of dreams but unlike his best realized characters she isn’t nearly as interesting. As a result, despite the beautiful visuals and the eye popping 3-D, “Alice in Wonderland” is a bit of a flat line.
Sadly much of the problem lies with Wasikowska. She is delicately beautiful in a way that would very likely leave Lewis Carroll weak in the knees and after her stint on the television show “In Treatment,” we know she can act, but she rarely looks really engaged with the character. Perhaps it is that she spent the entire time acting against a green screen and didn’t get to actually interact with her co-stars very often, but she’s a little too low key to be at the center of a large, fanciful film.
It’s not a complete wash, however. Burton overloads the screen with eccentric and interesting visuals and has succeeded in creating a dream-like version of “Alice in Wonderland.” Unfortunately, like most dreams, when it’s over it’s quickly forgotten.
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