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Get lost in Alice’s fantasy world

POSTED: March 3, 2010 11:30 p.m.
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Johnny Depp, left, Mia Wasikowska, center, and Anne Hathaway give hauntingly strange portrayals of classic characters in Tim Burton's adaptation of Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland."

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"Alice in Wonderland" constitutes a meeting of three long-established, distinctive brands. Disney produces, Tim Burton directs and Lewis Carroll provides the story. It’s the sort of pedigreed project that generates excitement and high expectations. Which means someone’s going to be disappointed.

One movie can’t please the devoted fans in all three camps (so to speak). However, this "Alice in Wonderland" harmonizes these three cultural icons as well as possible.

This "Alice in Wonderland" combines Carroll’s books "Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass." Carroll purists might be put off immediately because the movie isn’t a strict adaptation. But it adheres to the spirit of the books, mostly, while trying to be relevant to contemporary audiences.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is raised in Victorian England by a kind but repressed mother (Lindsay Duncan) and a dreamer of a father (Marton Csokas). A precocious girl, she suffers from a recurring dream so bizarre she suspects she might be a little crazy. You know, smiling cats, talking caterpillars, mad hatters, that sort of thing.

After this introduction, the movie leaps forward to when Alice is a young woman of marrying age. Everyone pressures her to take on her proper social role by marrying Hamish (Leo Bill), an effeminate cad with a stomach condition. By pressure, I mean Hamish proposes in front of everyone they know.

Rather than responding to the proposal, however, Alice leaves Hamish on bended knee and chases a watch-wielding rabbit into the woods, where she falls down the rabbit hole.

We all know the basics of the story. Alice encounters the creatures from her dream, some of whom are animated and speak in voices that will be familiar to many viewers, including the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman).

The rest of the characters are played by live actors but embellished with digital effects. She befriends the Mad Hatter, played endearingly, insanely and a tad tragically by Johnny Depp. She battles the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), a spoiled brat of a villain with a huge, round head. Alice must also help restore the royal crown to the White Queen, played with an ironic sweetness by Anne Hathaway.

All of these fantastic experiences and characters mirror Alice’s real life, so Alice’s adventures in Wonderland mimic her need to decide what kind of woman she wants to become.

Carroll’s books are entrenched in our culture, so this movie’s success really hinges on how well it tells a familiar story. I found it visually dazzling and enthralling. Aside from a couple of missteps, this instantly became my favorite version of any of the "Alice" stories. That’s saying something, since the movies have been mining Carroll’s books regularly since 1903.

Burton is frequently hailed as a great director, but his strong suit has always been production design. We recognize a Burton film at first glance. However, the look of Burton’s work hasn’t changed much since his 1982 short "Vincent." And that’s where the rich source material helps most.

Carroll created a fully developed universe for Alice. Burton’s best decision was to not completely overhaul Carroll’s world. The look of this "Alice in Wonderland" is equal parts Carroll and Burton. It doesn’t merely recycle Burton’s usual, and by now rather worn out, design elements. Nor did Burton choose to simply re-make the 1951 Disney version, which would have been pointless.

Much of the publicity for the film focuses on Depp, but while his performance is strong, this doesn’t feel like his movie. There are too many other rich characters for any one actor — even Depp — to dominate the show.

Smartly, Burton keeps his storytelling eye trained on the title character. After all, this is Alice’s trip. The Hatter, like the rest of us, are merely along for the ride.

Jeff Marker is a media studies professor at Gainesville State College.



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