It's not your mother's Alice in Wonderland. Nor is Tim Burton's inspired mash-up of action fantasies your granny's magic-mushroom milkshake of Lewis Carroll's mindbender.
If there were truth-in-titling, Burton's movie rightly would be called Alice in Narnia: With Stops at Disneyland, the Shire, Rohan, Naboo, and Oz.
The White Rabbit is here. As are the Mad Hatter, Queen of Hearts, and Cheshire Cat. But as reimagined by Linda Woolverton, Disney's resident girl-power scribe (Beauty and the Beast, Mulan) and re-envisioned by Burton, these characters do not conform to their story lines in Carroll's Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. They are chess pieces in a gaudily entertaining fan fiction about a nonconformist's coming-of-age.
Alice (Mia Wasikowska, the troubled teen on In Treatment) is a 19th-century 19-year-old, a brisk tea of dreaminess and defiance. For years, she has puzzled over nightmares that her father, an adventurer, encouraged her to learn from. Fast forward: Dad is dead and Mom wants to marry Alice off to a twitty lord, son of Dad's business partner.
While Alice considers said twit's proposal, she follows a white bunny down down down the rabbit hole to the upside-down universe of what here is called "Underland."
This implicit reference to lady parts is a motif of the Woolverton/Burton fantasia, which structures Alice's trek as a hero's journey through female archetypes. Only after tasting the rancorous rule of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, Burton's real-life partner) and the damsel-in-distress dithering of the White Queen, does Alice ultimately emerge a woman warrior.
What fun Burton has in visualizing the different sensibilities of the monarchs! Though his narrative, like Carroll's, follows no logical path, imagistically the film is rich and allusive. (Why is there a visual reference to Padme and Anakin Skywalker's wedding in Star Wars II? No idea.) The film, which is like most spectacles nowadays in 3-D, does not use the added dimension in any particularly innovative way. The innovation is in its visuals.
The balloon-headed Red Queen lives in a palace that resembles Sleeping Beauty's at Disneyland, only drenched in maraschino-cherry sauce. And the floss-haired White Queen resides in a spun-sugar castle resembling something Narnian. And also Oz-like, as the good and bad queens are like the good and bad witches.
(Disney, which produced Alice in Wonderland, likewise made the Narnia films and doubtless has plans to use the elaborate sets for this movie in its theme parks.)
It is whimsical to read about the Red Queen's playing croquet with a flamingo for a mallet and hedgehog for a ball. But it is enchanting to see an apparently real (if digitized) flamingo and hedgehog used for the games.
The battle between other game pieces, the Red Queen's scarlet playing-card soldiers and the White Queen's ivory chessmen-at-arms, makes for the film's most spectacular set piece, the game board as epic battlefield. Kind of like the battle of Helm's Deep in Lord of the Rings, but dynamically choreographed.
Johnny Depp plays the Mad Hatter like a Scottish fairy-godbrother, jibber-jabbering in a brogue that's almost impenetrable. He doesn't bring much to the tea party, but it's always fun to watch him crack himself up. Better are the mischievous Cheshire Cat (purring voice supplied by Stephen Fry) and hookah-puffing caterpillar (sepulchral tones courtesy of Alan Rickman), who are more helpful as Underland guides.
As Alice regards the diabolical Red Queen and her angelic younger sister, she rejects the two prevailing archetypes of womanhood, the bitch and the goddess, to pursue what she explicitly calls her "own path." In the WoolBurton version of Alice's metamorphosis, the heroine is a caterpillar who becomes a butterfly.
Carroll purists are likely to dismiss this Alice as spuriouser and spuriouser. But who expects a faithful adaptation of a literary classic from Timothy Beetlejuice?
Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey