Weird new Alice

Disney/Tim Burton collaboration is good, twisted fun

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is all grown up.

Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is all grown up.

Alice in Wonderland
Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway. Directed by Tim Burton. Feather River Cinemas, Paradise Cinema 7 and Tinseltown. Rated PG.
Rated 4.0

It’s directed by Tim Burton, but the name above the film title is Disney, and the script is by someone else as well—one Linda Wolverton. And so the latest Alice in Wonderland movie isn’t a Tim Burton picture in quite the usual way—a circumstance that might be cause for alarm, except that the somewhat hybrid nature of this weird new Alice (live action with animation and 3-D) turns out to be one of its unexpected strong points.

This time the Alice who plunges down the rabbit hole and into a dreamy wonderland is a live-action lass getting ready to break free of the Victorian propriety she sees looming over the future that’s been mapped out for her. She’s also not so sure she’s fallen into the right dream, and the assorted creatures and caricatures she encounters in Wonderland (re-dubbed Underland here) are not so sure she’s the right Alice for the adventures they’re itching to run her through at least one more time.

Wolverton’s Alice finds her way by getting lost, and the script tracks back toward Lewis Carroll’s original by embracing an assortment of parallel myths and tales. The Alice of Disney cartoons has been replaced by a young-adult Alice whose story tacitly rubs elbows with Joan of Arc, St. George and the dragon, the War of the Roses, Anne of Green Gables, etc.

Mia Wasikowska fills in quite nicely as this avatar Alice dreaming her way through a mildly bent coming-of-age fantasy. She may not be the ultimate Alice, and she’s definitely not in the same brashly surreal league as the Alice of Jan Svankmajer’s 1988 film version, but her curiously jumbled nature exerts a certain fascination—dissident Victorian, proto-feminist and Anglo-hippie dropout, historical romance dreamgirl with an ironic underlayer of corporate visionary and fledgling empire builder.

The character’s magical aura is enhanced considerably by the various semi-familiar figures cavorting, and sometimes intruding, in her vicinity—the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), and assorted animated creatures including especially the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry). Hathaway’s sublimely sedated regent and Depp’s psychedelic shaman are the special standouts.

The 3-D in Alice is every bit as perfunctory as it is in Avatar, and only a little less spectacular. The dank aquarium gloom of the 3-D process makes more sense in Alice’s Underland than it does in Avatar’s blue heaven, and perhaps all the better to serve as a backdrop to the luminescent portraiture of Depp, Hathaway and Wasikowska.