Tim Burton’s take on the classic tale of has an eerie, gothic vibe, in keeping with his unique film style. It succeeds in being visually engaging, with its garish characters and stunning visual effects. However, much like James Cameron’s , its plot falls short from achieving any substantial originality.
This adaptation takes place after Alice’s first visit to Wonderland when she was a little girl. Now she is a 19-year-old rebellious, free-spirited teenager, played by newcomer Mia Waiskowska. Waiskowska does a decent job, although in many scenes Alice’s surroundings seem to overshadow her small screen presence. Alice does not remember her first visit to Wonderland, and is plagued by dreams of this mythical place she cannot explain. Because of the demands of the society in which she lives, Alice feels trapped and seeks to get out. Following a particularly stressful situation, she manages to escape by following a white rabbit down a rabbit hole. She ends up in a Burton-esque Underland, not Wonderland; it is explained that she misheard the name in her initial visit.
Underland is a war-ravaged land ruled over by the evil Red Queen, played wonderfully by Helena Bonham Carter. The Red Queen is a petulant, childlike tyrant who does not hesitate to chop heads off at the slightest of whims. She has no rivals because she has killed them all, except for her sister, the good White Queen, played by Anne Hathaway. Hathaway does a good job playing Bonham Carter’s pacifist counterpart, and is especially amusing with the dramatic elegance of the White Queen.
The setup alone was entertaining enough; but then of course, the archetypal “epic film” plot just had to be thrown in. In this case, apparently Alice is the “chosen one”, and must go on a quest to find a mythical sword so that she can slay the Red Queen’s Jabberwocky and restore power to the White Queen. It is very generic, and plays out very predictably.
What saves this film from its less than engaging plot are its stunning visual effects. Although the 3D seemed a bit unnecessary, Burton does a wonderful job of painting an intriguing Wonderland that is foreboding as well as fascinating through the use of ominous shadows contrasted with bright and vivid scenery.
The mixture of live action with green screen and motion capture is very effective in creating this fantasy world. The vibrant costume design is another commendable feature of this film. The period pieces are spot on, as well as the exaggerated gowns shown in Wonderland.
Alice unexplainably changes dresses a countless number of times, but they are all beautiful dresses. Also, the costumes of the Mad Hatter and the Red Queen do a good job of conveying their respective character traits, with the Mad Hatter wearing a tattered array of mismatched fabrics, and the Red Queen dressed head to toe in red. Costume designer Colleen Atwood did a wonderful job crafting this visual aspect of the film.
Additionally, all of the classic Wonderland characters were reinvented using state-of-the-art animation. The Tweedle brothers, voiced by Matt Lucas, are extremely eerie looking because of how realistic they look. These bickering brothers help provide some comic relief.
The Chesire Cat, played by Stephen Fry, looks creepier than ever with a disturbingly realistic face and huge smile. Unfortunately, his persona is made more family-friendly in this film, in contrast to the distrustful trickster he was in the original film. All of the characters seem to have been adapted to help Alice along her epic quest, most notably the Mad Hatter, and it is not a very welcome change.
Johnny Depp does a fantastic job portraying the Mad Hatter; it’s not his fault his character has been reduced to a jumbled mess whose only purpose is guiding Alice.
All in all, this is an enjoyable film. Kids will love it, even though there are a few parts that might be a tad too graphic. As for adults, the visual effects will make up for the lackluster plot.