Alice (Mia Wasikowska, "Amelia", "Defiance") runs from an arranged engagement with an unhappy young man with a sourpuss face and falls into the rabbit hole. Back in Wonderland, she quickly meets up with the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) and Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas, "Little Britain"). She also learns she has role to play in the battle between the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).
Burton is easily one of the most artistic directors working in film and he treats his celluloid like a canvas. "Alice In Wonderland" is no exception. And "Alice in Wonderland" is also an example of the two Burton's at conflict. The beginning and end of the film take place in a country estate in England. A large party has gathered, everyone wearing whites and pastels to perfectly match the country setting, to witness the news of Alice's engagement, something she is unaware of. As soon as she learns of the news, she becomes overwhelmed and runs through the countryside. These bits are presumably filmed on real locations or sets. As soon as Alice enters Wonderland, everything becomes even more surrealistic as we delve into a computer-generated world. Not only are we watching real actors perform in this new world, they interact with a number of characters that are also created through the use of CGI. Then, throw in the use of 3-D and Wonderland becomes an eye-popping spectacle. Burton would never depict Wonderland as an amusement park attraction. Instead, as in most of his films, he is drawn to the darker side of the story and the setting. While there are plenty of eye popping pastels, Burton almost seems to use a gray filter on his camera, giving everything a more ominous tone. Later, when the two queens battle, the sky is overcast and dark. This is definitely not a Wonderland we have seen before. Burton is absolutely the right choice to update the look of this well-known classic.
But Burton, the director, is not as interested in creating fully developed characters. Beyond Alice, and her need for escape, we don't really learn a lot about the individual characters and most of these performances are just not that interesting.
Even Depp, Burton's muse, is unable to break free of the ridiculous hairstyle and make-up to transform his character into something completely interesting. Depp always seems to play this same type of character in Burton's films; someone who is deeply disturbed or strange in some way, trying to assimilate into society or simply get by. The Mad Hatter is really no different from any of these characters and Depp's performance has a 'been there, done that' feeling. The Mad Hatter wants to make sure he doesn't rock the boat too much. He must appear to be on the side of the Red Queen, to appease her, when in fact he supports the White Queen. Because he waffles back and forth, and titters madly whenever his deception may come undone, his character seems more wishy washy than anything else.
Helena Bonham Carter steals the film. Her performance as the insecure, physically and morally short Red Queen hits all the right notes. The Queen, eager to prove powerful, overcompensates for her short stature. She also wears sunglasses, peering over them throughout, trying to intimidate those around her. When she feels even slightly threatened, she almost starts to throw a temper tantrum, threatening to hold her breath until she gets what she wants. Her behavior frequently appears more like a spoiled debutante or rock star, someone so used to getting their way, they are completely unaware of what others feel around them, how others are reacting around them. None of her strange requests seem to faze others. The sunglasses make me feel like she is playing a riff on the stereotype of how a spoiled, bratty Hollywood star talks and behaves. At one point, she yells "PIG" and a big pig slides under her feet, providing a footrest.
The 1933 version features Cary Grant, Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields and Edward Everett Horton as the Mad Hatter. This new version seems to follow the tradition and casts Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, Michael Sheen and Matt Lucas in various supporting roles. To be honest, most are so obscured by the CGI characters they "wear" it is difficult to tell who they are. I think this is part of the appeal for these actors. They are able to participate in a film like this and have some fun. If the film is a success, they can point to their role as an interesting diversion. If not, they will probably not be remembered for the role. To be honest, I didn't even recognize Matt Lucas, one of the stars of the very bawdy British television series "Little Britain". He plays both Tweedledee and Tweedledum and the characters are largely created with CGI. Yes, they share some of the features of his face, but the characters just aren't distinctive enough to be that memorable.
Because the film is so beautiful to look at, and the film was designed and shot in 3D (something people should beware of after the release of "Clash of the Titans") the 3-D is beautiful, amazing and enhances the film really well. The technique becomes more predominant once Alice arrives in Wonderland. In the real world, when she is on the country estate, the use of this effect seems muted. I'm not sure if this is intentional or not, but it helps set the two worlds apart. The 3-D is particularly striking as Alice falls down the rabbit hole.
There are indications and moments throughout leading us to believe Alice is RETURNING to Wonderland. Frankly, I'm not sure why they did this, as she seems to be covering the same basic territory as the original story. The references and the idea of her 'return' only seem confusing. Were Burton and Disney afraid of competing with the animated Classic? If so, they were silly to think such a thing. Burton's "Wonderland" would benefit considerably from removing this one confusing thread, providing les distraction.
Visually, as with all Burton's films, "Alice" is a wonder. Narratively, as with most Burton films, "Alice" is a problem.