Friday, March 12, 2010

Burton in 'Wonderland'

The twisted mind of Tim Burton has taken on the equally warped mind of Lewis Carroll in the latest Disney version of “Alice in Wonderland.” The pairing is a good fit, and this is a visually impressive take on the familiar story.

Burton was an animator for Disney in the early 1980s, but they didn't see eye to eye. After movies like “Beetlejuice” and “Batman” made him a superstar, Disney lured him back by allowing him to make his dream project: “A Nightmare Before Christmas.” After he made the critically-acclaimed, but box office dud “Ed Wood,” Disney moved on again.

So, now Burton and Disney are together again and Disney must be very pleased indeed. The movie made $116 million its opening weekend, which is an unheard-of number for a spring release. Some will claim this was a sell-out move on Burton's part, but I say more power to him for getting Disney to front the $200 million bill for this loopy adaptation of Carroll's beloved books.

Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton (“The Lion King”) freely blend elements of “Alice's Adventures in Wonderland” with “Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There” with a new framing device and central story.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now nearly 20 and only recalls her last visit to Wonderland (or Underland) as a nightmarish dream.
Her mother wants to marry her off to a wealthy fop who wants to repress Alice's whimsical mind that is full of strange, seemingly mad thoughts. When Alice gets a glimpse of the White Rabbit, it is down the rabbit hole once again.

Underland is now ruled by the tyrannical Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and a prophecy says it is Alice who will slay the queen's dragon-like Jabberwocky and restore the throne to the goofy, but good White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Alice has lost her “muchness,” as the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) tells her, and the movie is about her becoming much more mucher.

Burton is well aware of how iconic all these characters are and dispenses with lengthy introductions. It may be confusing for little children or for those who have managed to have zero exposure to the story, but that isn't necessarily a bad thing. Carroll's world is supposed to be slightly off-kilter.

This is very much a straightforward Disney fantasy adventure in terms of its plotting, but it is the vivid art direction and odd flavorings that Burton adds that give the film a personality that is distinctly his own.
Working with Depp for the seventh time, the duo have created a fittingly bizarre characterization of the Mad Hatter. Under

Burton, Depp goes out on huge acting limbs that sometimes don't always work, but his Mad Hatter is a wonderful creation. At times a lisping fool, his madness sometimes materializes into genuine anger towards the Red Queen. There is also a come- and-go Scottish bourque that is quite amusing.

Bonham Carter is appropriately menacing as the Red Queen and adds lots of idiosyncratic touches in her line deliver, but those familiar with her work in the TV movie “Merlin” will recognize that she's doing a riff on the villainy that she portrayed in that film.

Wasikowska is quite effective as Alice and an engaging lead. She has a way of being completely sincere and believable when surrounded by all these special effects. She makes you care about Alice's struggle to be who she really is.

There is also excellent voice work from Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar, Timothy Spall as the dog Bayard and Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit. Matt Lucas (“Little Britain”) is transformed into both Tweedledum and Tweedledee and has some of the movie's best laughs.

This “Alice in Wonderland” isn't a mind-blowing experince, but it is dark, weird and comic in unexpected ways. It is visually stimulating throughout and, thanks to the performances, always engaging.

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