At last, we have an Alice in Wonderland for these times: Gloria Steinem meets Joan of Arc — with a touch of Carrie Bradshaw.
Tim Burton’s big-budget movie loses touch with a lot of the whimsy from Lewis Carroll’s Alice books in favor of lots of girl-power feminism. That doesn’t ruin the movie, but in a world that’s supposed to grow curioser and curioser, things quickly get conventional and conventionaler.
Alice (newcomer Mia Wasikowska) is the headstrong daughter of an English businessman, now deceased. At 19, she is a proto-feminist who refuses to wear a corset (“Who’s to say what’s proper?”) to a splendid garden gala that, she discovers with a shudder, is her own engagement party. She is facing the public humiliation of being asked for her hand in marriage by a dim and chinless aristocrat. “You know what I’ve always dreaded?” her prospective mother-in-law asks her. “The decline of the aristocracy?” Alices replies. We’re only minutes into the film, and already the script has established that Alice is exactly how the girls and women in the audience see themselves: modern, free-thinking, populist.
How rebellious is this film? It is surely the first one in history to be rated “PG for fantasy/action violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar.” A movie that arrives in an age when our children must be warned that a mythical creature might smoke is likely to be wary of taking chances.
It is, though much of it is wonderful to behold. After Alice’s trip down the rabbit hole to the animated “Underland,” as it is called here, she is confronted with a garden of unearthy delights. The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has an enormous head of red hair balanced on a tiny body; her henchmen look like the spawn of playing cards and Iron Men. Tweedledee and Tweedledum are wittily drawn Charles Addams-like creations, and both Alan Rickman’s Blue Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) are delightfully droll.
Yet the film is little more than a parade of fantastical beings and set pieces in which the Red Queen’s leading soldier the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) chases after the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). These scenes, while often frantic, aren’t really scary and they aren’t really comedy, which brings up a problem with Depp, and with Burton.