Thursday, March 4, 2010

A Wonderful "Alice"

By Skip Sheffield


That’s my one-word review of Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland.”

This sequel to Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” is one of those rare films that exceeded my expectations, already pretty high.

Linda Woolverton’s script combines the original, published by the Rev. Charles Lutwidge Dogson under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll in 1865, and its sequel, “Through the Looking Glass.” Additional elements come from Carroll’s poetry; especially “Jabberwocky,” which is part of “Looking Glass” but has achieved a separate life of its own.

I had the advantage of knowing more about “Jabberwocky” than most people. We studied it for structure and syntax in graduate school even though the words are nonsense.

But are they? Woolverton’s clever, imaginative script makes use of key words and turns them into actual subjects, objects and creatures.
“Beware the Jabberwock, my son!

The jaws that bite, the claws that snatch!”

In this surreal scenario we actually see the deadly Jabberwock, and the Vorpal Sword, the only weapon that can slay the dragon-like beast.

We also see the snarling, drooling, “frumious” Bandersnatch, a furry villain, but one with a sense of loyalty.

The story begins with a recap of a darling 6-year-old Alice Kingsley (Mairi Ella Challen) falling down the rabbit hole and finally concluding all the strange and startling things she encounters were just a dream.

“Am I bonkers?” Alice asks her beloved dad.

“All the best people are bonkers,” he consoles her.

The story shifts 13 years ahead. Dad is dead, Alice is 19 (Mia Wasikowska) and she is dressing for an elaborate party being thrown for her and her rich, eligible boyfriend,

Hamish (Bill Leo). It is the height of the Victorian Age, and Alice chafes against putting on a corset and stockings.

She chafes even more against the thought of marriage to dorky Hamish, who stands to become Lord Astor.

The elaborate party is actually an engagement party, and everyone knows but Alice.

The pressure is on. Alice’s mother warns she could become an old maid, like pitiful Aunt Imogene (Frances de la Tour).

There is a distinct feminist flair to this modern Alice, and running from the party is just the first step to freedom and independence. But first she must face a series of challenges after falling down the rabbit hole again.

Enter the Mad Hatter, played by Johnny Depp in orange fright wig, shabby top hat and bulging green eyes.

Things have gone downhill terribly since Alice last took tea with the Hatter and his friends the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) and lurking, grinning Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry).

All these characters were in the first Alice adventure, so beloved in the 1951 Disney animated film.

New characters from “Looking Glass” are Tweedle Dum and Tweedle Dee (Matt Lucas) and Bayard the bloodhound (Timothy Spall).

The tea table is in ruins and the forest is a wasteland ever since the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has wrested power and the magical Vorpal Sword from her kind sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, looking like a wraith in white).

Through the magic of CG animation, the Red Queen has a normal sized body but an enormous head, with Carter’s eyes and mouth but not much else.

The queen is very sensitive about her appearance, and in deference to her power, her subjects affect deformities too.

It’s all very Tim Burton, and so is the villainous Knave of Hearts (Crispen Glover), the Queen’s chief toady and enforcer.

A conflict between good and evil is inevitable, and the battle between red and white, played on a giant chess board, is a sight to behold.

Burton overdoes it a bit with his CG violence. Who really wants to see a decapitation, or guts spewing in a children’s story?

Purists will not like the contemporary liberties, but “Alice in Wonderland” is a story for all ages, and as such it will be re-interpreted at regular intervals.

I think this is Tim Burton’s best work yet, with a lot of help from his talented friends.

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