Only Tim Burton could turn Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” into an action hero movie and still make it the visual equivalent of Carrol’s double dutch poem, “Jabberwocky.” Written by Linda Woolverton, the story combines bits of the story, bits of the poem, with the aim to give Alice gravitas that creates a narrative to frame her dreamscape odyssey down under. Though early on the production beamishly galumphs, gyres and gimbels through the wabe, the build up, climax, and aftermath to the battle royale runs out of steam.
In this version, Alice (Mia Wasikowska), nineteen years old, stands on the threshold of the era of the emancipated woman. Though her clothes, her family’s expectations of her conduct, and her options in life are Victorian, she’ll have nothing to do with an arranged marriage to the son of her father’s business partner, with the wearing of a corset and stockings, and with the adage that children should be seen not heard. Tricked into attending a lavish fete that’s really an engagement celebration, she scampers after a rabbit, falls into that hole and the rest is CGI-enhanced history.
The familiar characters are all there. Helena Bonham Carter plays the megacephalic Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) who surrounds herself with myrmidons and takes a page out of “Bruno” and, to the imagined consternation of PETA, uses a pig instead of Mexicans as living furniture. Johnny Depp plays the Mad Hatter who, make no mistake, is dotty, but there’s a reason: he suffered what could be called post-traumatic stress disorder when the Red Queen unleashed the fearsome Jabberwock on her younger sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) who had been bequeathed the crown to Wonderland. There’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee, both played by Matt Lucas and portrayed in a fascinating blend of animation and real-life acting.
What’s new, or at least different, is the context of Alice’s otherwise meanderings through Wonderland which, without Burton’s backstory, would still be as random and psychedelic as the lyrics to Jefferson Airplane’s “White Rabbit.” A scrolled document reveals that Alice is fated to slay the whiffling, burbling Jabberwock with the Vorpal Sword on the Frabjous Day. It’s her destiny, which gives the story it’s mythic arc. Accordingly, the Red Queen, abetted by the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), marches on the White Queen’s lovely Marmoreal (using the adjective for marble to sound like the royal residence Balmoral) but not before Alice, an English Rose/Wonder Woman, steals the Vorpal Sword from the frumious Bandersnatch, rescues the Mad Hatter and his loopy coterie from an imperious “off with their heads!" Red Queen, dashes back to Marmoreal, dons a very becoming suit of armor and beheads the Jabberwock.
Burton creates psychological depth with Alice’s quest to claim her identity as a strong-willed, independent thinking young woman. Though the whole excursion to Wonderland was part of a recurring series of dreams that had plagued/enchanted her since her last visit to Wonderland at the age of six, she’s got real life responsibilities and duties, namely, to expand the British Empire to China out of respect to her deceased father who inculcated in her the capacity to dream when she was a wee lass.
Burton’s challenge was daunting – creating a backstory for Alice, giving her emotional resonance, expanding the post-Wonderland odyssey to China all the while creating the atmospheric peg on which to hang the story. He succeeds on all but a few counts. The transition from enchanted Alice to warrior Alice is clumsy. Since we know she’s going to lop off the Jabberwock’s head – the moment of beheading precisely resembles the image on the scroll – it comes across as an anticlimax. The Mad Hatter’s promised futterwacken, a curious epileptic jig that he promised to dance after Frabjous Day events ran their course, ground action to a screeching halt. Depp and Carter make their characters larger than life but Hathaway’s White Queen was a little too bland: she claims she wouldn’t kill the Jabberwock because she wouldn’t harm a living thing but neither does she convincingly convey her still-there undercurrent of darkness. Alice’s return to Victorian London feels tacked on as an afterthought. We’ve invested so much in her quest for identity that we’re disappointed that she’s decided to not stay down under with the lovestruck Mad Hatter and chooses instead to become a capitalist and, perhaps inadvertently, an imperialist. Tack that onto her unexpectedly Amazonian traits and you’ve got a character that’s more 20th century Lara Croft that 19th century Victorian woman.