Alice in Wonderland

Movie review: Tim Burton's refreshing take on 'Alice in Wonderland'

By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010

Is there a better movie-match than Lewis Carroll and Tim Burton? With "Alice in Wonderland," his boldly revisionist remix of Carroll's beloved tales of a young girl's journey down a rabbit hole and through a looking glass, Burton finely balances excess and restraint to create an absorbing, visually rich world of his very own.

Burton has wisely avoided producing a mere pop-up illustration of the books, instead finding inspiration in Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen and other familiar characters and putting them into a brand-new story. His most nervy decision -- making Alice a 19-year-old young woman on the verge of a tiresome marriage -- also proves to be his best. "Alice in Wonderland" is not just a refreshingly feminist version of the classic hero quest but a forum for a terrific breakout performance from newcomer Mia Wasikowska.

After a brief preamble featuring young Alice after a very strange dream involving a waistcoat-wearing rabbit, "Alice in Wonderland" leaps forward 13 years, when she is on her way to being engaged to a wealthy but dull aristocrat. At the engagement party, Alice spies the busy rabbit again, chases after him and falls down a dusty tunnel. She winds up not in Wonderland but Underland, a place suffering under the rule of the cruel and petulant Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). When Alice meets a hookah-smoking caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman), she's informed that her destiny lies in returning the throne to the Red Queen's gentle sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), after slaying the dreaded Jabberwocky.

Burton's signature gnarled, gothic aesthetic runs through "Alice in Wonderland," which features Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, he of the oddly dilated pupils and accents that run from a lusty Scottish brogue to an upper-crusty lisp. It's worth the price of admission if only to hear Depp give sonorous voice to Carroll's slithy toves and borogoves, but it's the women who steal the show, from the somber, self-possessed Wasikowska (familiar to fans of HBO's "In Treatment") to Bonham Carter's scenery-chewing tantrums, to Hathaway's very funny turn as a too-too good girl. "Alice in Wonderland" is being shown in 3-D, but the most stunning effects lie in the film's ingenious makeup and costumes, as well as tricks that elongate or fatten the characters' bodies (or, in the case of Bonham Carter, inflate her head to dirigible-like proportions).

Most important, "Alice in Wonderland" honors the more tender subtexts of the Alice stories, having to do with isolation and loss. Even considering the liberties Burton has taken with the original text, it's tempting to think that Carroll himself would consider him an altogether frabjous match.

***PG. At area theaters. Contains fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and a smoking caterpillar. 109 minutes.

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