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.
Depp is a gifted actor but he isn’t a comedian. With the exception of his Keith Richards impression in the first Pirates movie, he’s never been funny. When he tries to get laughs, he simply comes out weird — like a lonely uncle who has never had children putting on a clown suit and trying too hard to be wacky. Depp’s busy but tiresome performance as the Hatter is as hard to watch as his bizarre Willy Wonka.
Moreover, as well-designed as the animation is, the movie lacks drive. Some scenes seem designed only to allow us to sit back and marvel, but the beasts become less and less interesting the second and third time they appear. Alice strolls around in wildly colorful outfits reminiscent of Carrie Bradshaw’s wardrobe on Sex and the City, as though the wonderland she’s really interested in is a sample sale.
Toward the end, the movie eventually gains a sense of purpose: Alice, who early on has been attacked by the vicious hellcat the Bandersnatch, must make peace with it, find the Vorpal sword, and, as the chosen champion of the Red Queen’s gentle sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), slay the even scarier Jabberwock. Clad in Joan of Arc armor, Alice rides into battle while in the background CGI effects show a Lord of the Rings-style clash of thousands of soldiers fighting on the Red and White sides.
This epic fight, though, seems perfunctory and it isn’t especially gripping. Alice, unlike Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, never really seems to be in much peril or to have a purpose other than to meet the next fantasy figure. Her trip to Underland seems like a day at a theme park rather than a true test of her mettle. The Red Queen, meanwhile, simply seems goofy, and borderline incompetent, rather than a master of evil like the Wicked Witch of the West. The major revelation — that Alice has been to Underland before — isn’t surprising, nor does it change anything important, and since Alice is essentially the same willful person at the beginning of the movie as she is when she returns to the real world at the end, her journey doesn’t matter much.
Of course, that could have been fixed if Underland had actually changed Alice into a feisty, combative, confident young woman. But that would mean the first act of the movie would have had to show Alice being both a credible heroine the audience could sympathize with and a proper, demure, passive Victorian lady. Apparently, even to spend ten minutes defending Victorian values is too fantastic an idea for today’s Hollywood to contemplate.