Alice in Wonderland

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Alice’s adventures aren’t nearly as insane as they ought to be in Tim Burton’s hands.
CAST Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Anne Hathaway, Helena Bonham Carter, Stephen Fry, Matt Lucas, Michael Sheen | DIRECTOR Tim Burton

Tim Burton has taken a work of nonsense and made sense of it. Ordinarily, this sort of thing should be met with approval. But in the universe of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, it is pure idiocy. Only someone as mad as a Hatter could have thought of deconstructing Alice.

Written almost 150 years ago, Lewis Carroll’s books can be read as an alternate universe to a rational, imperial England. Like the English spoken in social, political and academic circles of his day (Carroll was a mathematician at Oxford), all characters in the books speak the most beautiful English—eloquent, expressive and imaginative—but English that makes no sense whatsoever.

Even Alice is aware of this in the book, and after the mad tea party, says it is the stupidest tea party she ever went to. Burton, though, turns the party into part of a perfectly linear narrative that has the Mad Hatter (Depp) stuff poor Alice, a young lady now (Mia), in a tea pot for her own protection.

Explanations are provided in the film. Alice has nightmares as a child and worries that she is mad until consoled by her father that madness afflicts the best of us. The Red Queen (Carter) is a fascist and the White Queen (Hathaway) is a benevolent monarch, and Alice must, of course, be the liberal democrat and play her part in the overthrow of a dictatorship.

But you have to hand it to Burton. While trashing the text, he gives you an amusing ride. At the court of the Red Queen, with frog footmen and fish footmen at her majesty’s service, with Carter getting more and more hysterical with each ‘off with his head’, with the White Queen nonchalantly adding her own saliva to the magic potion she gives Alice to drink, the director whips up some cool energy.

But it’s not quite enough, and 3D doesn’t bridge the gap between the absurd universe of the books and their ordered, all too sane, interpretation on film.