Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, and Christopher Lee
There's little doubt that the Alice in Wonderland of 2010, a brilliant blend of all things Disney and all things Tim Burton, will be unable to match the unfathomably outrageous box-office of a certain muchly overrated Oscar-nominated sci-fi "Crapatar."
It's a pity. Really. Burton's imaginative and blissfully fantastic spectacle is an unquestionably superior film, a film so rich and wondrous and emotionally resonant that it provides a cinematic satisfaction that far transcends the beauty of its seamless 3D imagery.
Out of respect for devotees of Alice in Wonderland and Lewis Carroll, it is vital to know that Burton's Alice in Wonderland is not, in reality, a strict interpretation of the tale itself but a fantastic and magical intertwining of Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with a creative reverence that could only come from the mind of a free-thinking director such as Tim Burton. In this film, a 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska, That Evening Sun and Defiance) stumbles down the old rabbit hole for the second time in avoidance of a pending engagement with a dorky and clearly mismatched young man with the proper lineage to ensure her permanent wealth.
Despite her intelligence and beauty, Alice is perfectly presented as a typically Burtonesque hero, a young woman whose adventures lead her to a variety of shapes and sizes and personas as she weaves her way through the underland of Wonderland. She is surrounded, of course, by a kaleidoscope of calamitous characters ranging from the truly Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) to the tyrannical and infantile Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her henchman Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) and, of course, the kindly and peaceful White Queen (Anne Hathaway) plus the cheerfully clueless Tweedledee and Tweedledum (voicd by Matt Lucas), the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee) and a host of other oddly creatures who manage to both bedazzle and warm the heart.
When it was announced that Johnny Depp would join Burton for Alice in Wonderland and assume the role of The Mad Hatter, one could almost feel a planetary groan as it seemed virtually everyone questioned whether Depp had, perhaps, collaborated with Burton one too many times and, perhaps more importantly, if it simply wasn't time for Depp to drop the quirky characters in favor of a more traditional role. Once initial images of Depp's truly mad creation began to surface, it only seemed to fuel the belief that this may very well be the role that would undo the seemingly endless creativity of Depp's cinematic imagination.
The fears were unwarranted.
Depp, whose own research of The Mad Hatter character led him to believe the man suffered from mercury poisoning, is nothing short of astounding as this mad in the best of ways Mad Hatter. Whereas so many actors would have simply gone into a hyper abundance of quirk and oddity, Depp reaches deep inside the soul of The Mad Hatter and pulls out a character who is madly endearing, insanely sympathetic and simply awe-inspiring to behold. While Depp's is a performance unlikely to be critically recognized, it is a truly marvelous performance.
Yet, the wonder and magic of Alice in Wonderland would not exist without the absolutely perfect actress to assume the identity of the very muchly young woman herself. Mia Wasikowska, an actress far too many of you are unfamiliar with, is spot-on perfect as a transparently soulful young Alice. It would have been simple for Burton to have cast a more marketable, waif-like actress yet few could have captured the childlike wonder, unrivaled goodness and fiery courage with such conviction. Perhaps moreso than any other incarnation of the Alice tale, Burton captures the empowerment and celebration of this young woman that is so evident in Lewis Carroll's original written words.
Among the supporting players, Helena Bonham Carter is unquestionably the cinematic highlight with a zest and zeal and zip that will leave you laughing even as the Red Queen is screaming at the top of her lungs "Off with their head!!!!" Manifesting as a queen with a big head, both literally and figuratively, Bonham Carter's Red Queen is so joyously evil that she becomes the character you most love to hate to love. Poor Anne Hathaway, though, is left to make what she can of the kinder, gentler and infinitely less interesting White Witch for whom a vow to never harm another living creature could very well lead to her demise. In the dual vocal role of Tweedledee and Tweedledum, Matt Lucas stills nearly every scene he's in while Alan Rickman's Absalom is unforgettable and vocal work by Timothy Spall, Christopher Lee and Michael Sheen is flawless.
Robert Stromberg, who also designed "Avatar," again creates miracles here while Colleen Atwood's costuming and Danny Elfman's original score are perfect complements for Tim Burton's extraordinarily realized vision. The script from Linda Woolverton ( The Lion King) manages to nicely balance a reverence for Carroll's source material while infusing it with Burton's own distinct cinematic voice, and special effects master Ken Ralston creates a Wonderland that is visually hypnotic without resorting to sensory overload.
It likely goes without saying that Alice in Wonderland will have its naysayers, those who find it a tad plodding or laborious or just plain boring.
Quite simply, they are wrong.
Tim Burton manages to create with Alice in Wonderland a minor miracle of sorts, for it is not just Alice who spends nearly two hours in the dreamlike world of Wonderland but the audience, as well.
Avatar? An afterthought.
Alice in Wonderland is muchly and madly superior.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic