Last time someone thought Tim Burton and his source material was a match made in heaven things weren’t as scrumdiddlyumptious as we’d hoped. While it definitely stayed true to its roots, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory made one leave the theater not quite as satisfied as you’d hope. However, everyone was proven wrong when naysayers believed that he was also the wrong choice for the film adaptation of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
When a production team seems too good to be true, sometimes it is. In the case of something like Valentine’s Day, you have too many celebrities fighting for screen time in a film that’s not worth anyone’s efforts no matter how nominal. Thankfully, the names Tim Burton, Danny Elfman, and Lewis Carroll make one salivate with glee and spread a smile from ear to ear, Cheshire Cat-style, and their efforts here prove very worthy of expectations.
In this new Alice in Wonderland, Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) is all grown up. She’s 19 years old and headed to a gathering with her mother, Helen (Lindsay Duncan). This being a Disney production, it comes as no surprise to learn Alice’s father, Charles (Marton Csokas), has passed since we first saw him in the opening scene. Alice has been suffering the same nightmare for 13 years of falling down a hole and seeing all kinds of strange creatures from dodo birds to white rabbits.
Alice immediately comes to find out, thanks to Faith (Eleanor Gecks) and Fiona (Eleanor Tomlinson) Chattaway, that the gathering she is at is supposed to be her engagement party. Hamish (Leo Bill) is to ask for her hand. First, however, Alice is back down the rabbit hole and eating and drinking while being shrunken and stretched.
While everything at first seems like more of the same, screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, Homeward Bound: The Incredible Journey, and The Lion King) veers off in a mirrored direction. The rest of the proceedings have an all too familiar ring to them so that while the beat may sound the same, this film marches to a whole new drummer. Where all adaptations prior may have been stuck within the confines of the source material, here Woolverton and Burton are able to break free and play with Wonderland to their own ends.
This of course means that no one is safe. When the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) screams “off with their heads” it very well could happen. Aside from all the characters being aged as well, there’s a duel foretold and if Alice is the correct Alice, she has returned to Wonderland to restore order by defeating the Red Queen’s menacing Jabberwocky (voiced by Christopher Lee).
Sporting a production design that deserves accolades and possible nominations come next Oscar season, everything completely gels. The film has a rather cartoon-come-to-life feel but when your film is a sequel of sorts to both an animated feature film – primarily the 1951 Disney classic – and Carroll’s two books, nothing less would have worked. If you make things too lifelike, you can end up with a living nightmare which is not fitting when trying to reach such a deep-rooted fan base that literally spans generations. Also, it’s nice to see that Burton hasn’t forgotten what these types of movies need the most: heart and soul.
The cast as well as director Burton are having an amazing time working with the great one-liners set up for them by Woolverton. Mia Wasikowska as Alice plays her part greatly and holds a world completely computerized upon her shoulders with verve. Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter is finally never overused by Burton and lets the rest of the characters have a ball.
From Anne Hathaway as the angelic White Queen, good ol’ creepy Crispin Glover as Stayne, Knave of Hearts, Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, Alan Rickman as the Blue Caterpillar, and finally Stephen Fry used so perfectly in a Hollywood production for the first time since The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, everyone is used to full effect and it all comes together to make this trip to Wonderland one of the best.
The only thing that seems out of place is the same thing that plagued Burton’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory — a lack of songs. While it was far more awkward in that film, just when Alice in Wonderland gets to the point where you’d expect a musical number, the story just keeps whisking along. At least this time there’s enough new material to hold everything together and the pacing moves at a breakneck pace to its finale.
Photo courtesy Walt Disney Pictures