Would you entrust your child to the man who made the cannibalistic splatter-fest Sweeney Todd? That’s what Disney was hoping when it put the beloved children’s classic Alice in Wonderland in Tim Burton’s slightly sinister hands. As it turns out, it’s a perfect fit. Tim Burton and Alice in Wonderland were made for each other. Tim Burton was born to make 3-D, and Lewis Carol’s Alice in Wonderland was born to go 3-D.
This psychotropic Alice blows our mind and blows Disney’s 1951 cartoon out of the water. Wonderland 2010 is a feast for the eyes; there are flowers with faces, zany birds and far-out critters (a rocking-horse humming bird is one of countless fanciful flash details). Burton blended Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and expanded on the poem “Jabberwocky” to give the story structure and dimension. But it’s the three-dimensionalized Alice – in a fabulous performance by newbie Mia Wasikowska – that gives the film its greater substance.
It was Johnny Depp who was the wild card for me. In the ad, the Mad Hatter’s bizarre garb and make-up suggested that he could be far too menacing for young kids. He looks a little like Heath Ledger’s Joker, a character who was a little too menacing for me. But beneath his orange fro, the Mad Hatter has a skittish kindness. Kids will find him really weird, but before long he becomes Alice’s friend – a scarecrow to her Dorothy. Yes, every character is berserk and initially unsettling. But, as Alice’s father told her when she was young, “All the best people are bonkers.” Crazy’s just another word for free-spirited creativity. Before it’s clear who is a good guy and who’s a bad guy, young kids might be a bit on edge. But even the frightening Bandersnatch, with his drooly canine mouth and razor sharp claws, becomes a helpmate to Alice.
As the Red Queen, Helena Bonham Carter is a sheer delight. Her giant bulbous head is one of the film’s best special effects. Her absurd commands and predilections (like using live animals as furniture) would be creepy if they weren’t so funny. She’s just bratty – a quality that kids find very amusing in adults. Anne Hathaway’s White Queen is a somewhat spaced-out version of Glinda the Good. She’s trippy, but little kids will love her sparkly princess-ness. The dreaded Jabberwocky – a flying dragon-ish beast – is the movie’s scariest part and may freak out kids under 6 or 7 (and older scaredy-cats). His icky demise involves the severing of both his tongue and his head.
Linda Woolverton, the screenwriter for The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast, also wrote the Alice. Here Alice has returned to Wonderland at the age of 19, having first visited at the age of 7. It’s such a smart twist. At 19, Alice is better equipped to cope; if she was 7, children might too readily project themselves into her parentless adventure. At 19, Alice is a young woman about to be shoved into a suitable Victorian marriage with a comically gross suitor. The rabbit hole is her escape hatch that takes her from a snooty high-society party to a battlefield where she retrieves the sought-after sword and saves the day – like a feminist King Arthur with his Excalibur. This is a film you’ll want your daughter to see instead of Hannah Montana.
As Alice drinks this and eats that, she goes from big to small and back again, as children do, maturing and regressing. At first, the gang in Wonderland aren’t convinced she is the right Alice. They’ve been waiting for the return of Alice to dethrone the evil Red Queen. But this Alice is reluctant; she is “hardly Alice.” Recalling the 7-year-old, the Mad Hatter tells Alice, “You were much more muchier. You’ve lost your muchness.” Which is in fact, the heart-wrenching truth about growing up isn’t it? We come to find out Wonderland is actually called Underland. At 7, Alice mistakenly called it the wrong name. It’s a tidbit that reflects so much about the perceptions of children and adults.
Like Where the Wild Things Are this is a film about childhood as well as being a film that will enchant children. If your kid isn’t old enough, see it alone.