Expectations can be a killer--which is why I try to approach every movie with a clear head and a clean slate. With Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," though, I'm guessing that a lot of viewers might have a hard time doing that.
Fans of Lewis Carroll's two fantasy novels--Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865) and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There (1871)--will have a tendency to judge this film by the books. How faithful is it? How visual is it? How much of the books survived the transfer to a different medium? Did it capture the right tone and atmosphere and somehow, miraculously, match the mind-pictures that readers' brains conjured up?
Fans of Disney's "Alice in Wonderland" (1951) may approach this live-action Disney version lugging similar baggage, judging it according to that sweet (but not terribly faithful) blending of the texts. Stray too far from a beloved Disney classic and you're in trouble again, especially since it had all but become the definitive film version. Fans of the 1951 animated film are apt to see the dragon-like Jabberwock in this one and think, what a weird Burtonesque thing to include, not realizing, perhaps, that this creature was part of the second Alice book, referenced in a poem called "The Jabberwocky."
But the most demanding and hard-to-please viewers of all may be Tim Burton fans. Oh, he's so weird, I can almost here them saying, so bizarre, so strange, so TWISTED. Those may be the greatest expectations to foist upon a film like this--presuming that it will be as far out and macabre as the rest of Burton's oeuvre.
And you know what? All three groups are apt to be a little disappointed by Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" if they judge this film by anything other than itself.
In some ways, "Alice" is tame by Burton standards. For the first half, he follows the previous Disney version fairly closely, with only a different set-up: This Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is 19, and what sends her running after the White Rabbit faster than a hare down his hole is the grand spectacle of her engagement party--which, for her alone, was a surprise. But there are plenty of familiar and fairly straightforward moments in this film--not the least of which is an obvious homage to "The Wizard of Oz" in which characters from the fantasy world have counterparts in the real one. Her mother (Lindsay Duncan) matches up with the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), while the overbearing mother of her "fiancé" (Geraldine James) is like the Queen of Hearts (Helen Bonham Carter)--distressed to see that the gardener planted white, not red roses. "You could always paint them," this Alice says, dryly. Meanwhile, Alice's philandering brother-in-law (John Hopkins) comes close to the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), and the carrot-topped would-be fiancé (Leo Bill) has his double in the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). Two society twins (Eleanor Gecks/Eleanor Tomlinson) match up with Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas), while a blue caterpillar and White Rabbit populate both worlds. It's all very clever, but surprisingly neat and tidy.
Yet, in other ways "Alice in Wonderland" just as askew as anything else Burton has done. In his theatrical review, Tim David Raynor called it "a much more entertaining adaptation compared to the animated version of 1951," and I'd have to agree. Visually, Disney's animated feature was stunning, but there were sequences that went on way too long, and directors Clyde Geronimi and Wilfred Jackson were content to stay with Carroll's literary nonsense and tangled logic, rather than adding elements to create a stronger narrative. Not Burton. In his hands, "Alice in Wonderland" becomes a little darker and a little closer to the Middle Kingdom and "Narnia"-style other-world sagas, in which a good queen has been supplanted by an evil one, and a chosen one that the oppressed have been awaiting may or may not have finally arrived.
As far as I'm concerned, this is the biggest improvement that Burton makes. The adjustment gives the actors motivation for their characters, and it pulls the "Alice" books more in alignment with Burton's fantastic vision. Genius? I think so. Burton found a way to meet "Alice" halfway, and the results are impressive. It's an entertaining film that never slows down, and never sags. The PG rating might be a little generous, since we encounter a skewered eyeball and bobbing heads (uh, the unattached kind) along the way, though it's still great family entertainment. The script by Linda Woolverton is solid, but it's Burton's vision, production design by Robert Stromberg, and costumes by Oscar-winner Colleen Atwood that make this film as stunning as it is. There's something fresh in almost every frame that's a marvel of design or animation.
Burton's real achievement here is in his daring manipulation of images. He uses straight live action, along with straight motion-capture technology and straight CGI. But then he plays with hybrids--although in Burton's world I suppose it's more appropriate to call them mutants. He uses a computer to enlarge Depp's Mad Hatter eyes, for example, and does that times 10 for Carter's bulbous, oversized Queen's head. In some of the excellent behind-the-scenes footage we see all sorts of green screen work and realize just how difficult it is to film a movie in which the heroine is either very tiny or very large throughout much of it. Burton's blending of forms really gives "Alice in Wonderland" its distinctive look. As a result, despite the familiar elements, Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" has enough quirkiness and style to make it an entirely different creature--and a fun one at that.
"Alice" played in 3D as well as traditional theaters, and there's a sense of 3-dimensionality everywhere. Some of the sequences in the fantasy world are deliberately grainy, as when the Mad Hatter recollects how the White Queen was deposed, or when Burton decides to burnish a scene with a golden-brown or blue wash. But for the most part, the AVC/MPEG-4 (48kHz/24 bit) transfer to 50-gig disc appears to be a good one. Colors are bold and bright in some sequences, and Burton-dark in others, depending upon the mood. Black levels also vary according to the sequence. But the level of detail is generally strong, and you never for a minute think that the shifts are anything but deliberate. "Alice in Wonderland" is presented in 1.78:1 widescreen, "enhanced" for 16x9 televisions.
During the tea party scene I brought the kids a bowl of popcorn, and as I sat down I heard a crash that was so real I turned in the direction of my rear speakers before realizing that it was the movie. Such startling effects are routine. Remember those "Is it real, or is it Memorex?" commercials? This English DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio is a dynamic, fully immersive soundtrack. The clarity and reproduction are astounding. If I had a nit to pick, it'd be that the sound doesn't drive far enough from the speaker source and there's a little too much separation in spots. But you really have to be picky to even consider this a flaw. It's a soundtrack that makes Wonderland (or rather, Underland) come alive. Additional audio options are English 2.0 DVS and French and Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, French and Spanish.
There are around an hour and 50 minutes of bonus features that are organized into two sections: Wonderland Characters and Making Wonderland. Character segments are Finding Alice, The Mad Hatter, The Futterwacken Dance, The Red Queen, Time-Lapse: Sculpting the Red Queen, and The White Queen. The common denominator here is enthusiasm. All of the actors are enthusiastic about the collaboration with Burton and the room that he gave them to interpret their characters. With Depp, for example, it was a historical take. It turns out that the phrase "mad as a hatter" came about because hat-makers or "hatters" were exposed to high levels of mercury in the materials that they used, and it really did turn them a bit mad. The features are all quite short (the longest is six minutes) but the actors are so engaging that they draw you in.
The Making Wonderland section features segments on Scoring Wonderland, Effecting Wonderland, Stunts of Wonderland, Making the Proper Size, Cakes of Wonderland, and Tea Party Props. The Cake Divas who were called upon to produce the pastries clearly were star-struck, and their segment is fun to watch because they're outsiders working suddenly inside Hollywood. But it's fascinating to see all the stilt work and wire work that went into this film, and how often Alice had to be seated higher or lower against a green screen than the others.
I watched "Alice in Wonderland" with my family, and every member voted it an 8 out of 10. Who am I to argue? It was a fun film with awesome visual design. I think that over time detractors will mellow and Burton's "Alice" will become a classic. Bandersnatches and Futterwackens not withstanding.