Alice in Wonderland

What It Is

Alice Kingsleigh has nightmares. Or, as she puts it, she has “only one,” the same bad dream again and again: she’s falling down a dark hole, then landing hard in a woodsy place where she meets strange creatures -- a dodo bird, a smiling cat, and a rabbit in a waistcoat. When she’s just six (and played by Mairi Ella Challen), her father (Marton Csokas) comforts her, assuring her that even if she has lost her mind, “All the best people have.” Thirteen years later, Alice (now played by Mia Wasikowska) misses her father, recently deceased, and tries her best to please her mother (Lindsey Duncan). Still, Alice has the dream, and still, she resists conforming completely. She can’t bring herself to wear corsets and stockings (“I’m against them!”) and she’d really prefer not to marry the foppish Hamish (Leo Bill), even if he is a lord.

Indeed, at the very moment Hamish proposes, Alice finds the perfect distraction -- that rabbit in the waistcoat, the one from her dream (voiced by Michael Sheen). He leads her into a very deep rabbit hole, at which bottom, she discovers other familiar creatures, including a blue caterpillar named Absalom (voiced by Alan Rickman), a bloodhound named Bayard (Timothy Spall), the rotund twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee (both acted by Matt Lucas), and a decidedly Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). While her new friends debate whether she is the right Alice, the Alice they’ve known in her previous visits, she wonders whether she has control over her dream, as even a pinch to her arm won’t wake her up.

It’s not long before Alice is called on to prove her rightness, by becoming the champion of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) against her sister, the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). In the process, she finds within herself strength, ingenuity, and even a sense of humor -- all of which help her to decide on her own fate.

Why It’s Fun

Alice’s adventure in Wonderland takes her through the woods and back and forth between red and white castles, riding along on the backs of galumphing dogs, and ever aware that her time is running short. The CGI is colorful and the 3D effects (added on to director Tim Burton’s 2D original film) are fine, if not precisely awesome. All help to convey Alice’s precarious sense of self, as she changes sizes -- between very small and very large -- according to what she drinks or eats, and according to where she needs to be or whom she needs to impress. While small, she’s protected by the mostly delightful and sometimes depressed Hatter. When she grows enormous, she becomes a sudden (and temporary) favorite of the Red Queen, whose own humungous head makes her feel both self-conscious and desperately jealous of her more normal-sized and more traditionally beautiful (and very, very pale) sister.

As the movie shapes Lewis Carroll’s famously episodic tale into a plot -- with a beginning, turns, motivations, and a quite neat end -- it loses the original’s meandering and unusual charms. Instead, it is a familiar story, and, no small thing, quite Disneyfied. While Absalom still puffs incessantly on his pipe, the movie doesn’t much allude to what he might be smoking, or how Alice’s own imbibing, which results in her shrinking and growing body, might also be mind-altering, maybe even brillig.

What’s lost in inventive perversity is reframed as a more conventional coming of age story. Alice is called on to complete tasks and face down enemies. When it comes time to rescue the kidnapped Hatter from the mean queen, she’s instinctively courageous, but she hesitates when asked to slay the Jabberwocky (voiced by Christopher Lee). “I don’t slay,” she insists, much to the White Queen’s chagrin. Learning to slay -- monsters in nightmares, anyway -- is a kind of growing up. But it’s also a little regular.

Who’s Going To Love It

Many kids will love the wild-ridey feel of Alice’s escapades, as she must run and jump and hide from the Red Knights, laugh at the Hatter’s excesses, and especially, the Red Queen’s ridiculous ranting. The talking animals, of course, are also entertaining, for a range of ages, as they are at once broadly cartoony and vaguely conspiratorial, big-eyed and cute as well as foot-stomping and frustrated. Girls will appreciate that Alice herself is thoughtful and spirited, resisting obviously bad rules and loyal to her dearest and most deserving friends, like the Hatter and Bayard. It’s inspiring that she outsmarts the pompous and utterly selfish Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover, sporting a heart-shaped eye patch and grisly, unexplained facial scar). Her moments of self-doubt only make her seem more attractive, more like the rest of us and less like the imperious Red Queen or the too-perfect White One. It may even be the case that boys appreciate her energy and athleticism, as she beats back dogs with fangs and dragons with bony wings.

What To Be Aware Of

Even as the excursions through the woods provide high-energetic fun, they can also teeter toward memories of other Burton-Depp collaborations, the gothic horrors of Sleepy Hollow or Sweeney Todd, or the more adolescent fears that cut through Edward Scissorhands -- these are terrific memories, but maybe not ideal for very young viewers. The fall down the hole is a little spooky, as is Alice’s tiptoeing across a moat on the gooshy heads the Red Queen has chopped off of previous interlopers.

Older than other recent fantasy heroes like Harry Potter or the Pevensies from The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice is an ambiguous role model. By the time she heads home and takes the reins at her father’s old shipping company, she’s sounding a little too colonialist to be wholly admirable.

It may also seem, at moments, that Alice and the Hatter are developing a sort of romance. This simultaneously makes sense -- given Alice’s feelings for her father and also, her age, which makes her more patently “available” for such attentions than Carroll’s child heroine. Still, he is old, far too old to be a suitable match, and so their mutual admiration is depicted as her youthful infatuation and his general madness. As she matures during her adventure, Alice both outgrows the loony Hatter and assumes responsibility for her social affairs back home. That said, she indulges in a Hatter-like dance at films end, as if to assert her right to selective madness, or at least willful resistance to silly human customs like arranging marriages or wearing corsets.

See-It-Again Points

6 out of 10

Film Information

Alice in Wonderland
Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall, Christopher Lee
Studio: Disney
Year: 2010
Rated: PG
US Premiere: March 5, 2010
UK Premiere: March 5, 2010
Official Website
Official Trailer
Movie Pictures

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