“I try to believe in as many as six impossible things before breakfast. Count them, Alice. One, there are drinks that make you shrink. Two, there are foods that make you grow. Three, animals can talk. Four, cats can disappear. Five, there is a place called Underland. Six, I can slay the Jabberwocky.”
To be perfectly honest with you, I have never read either of the two Lewis Carroll books on which this film has been based. Under ordinary circumstances, that would put me at a decided disadvantage in both watching the film and certainly in providing an insightful review of the movie. But these are not ordinary circumstances. The characters and their stories, originally told in both Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass And What Alice Found There, have become an indelible part of our culture. One need not have read a word to be intimately familiar with Alice and her fanciful friends and rivals from Underland, which Alice herself interprets for us as Wonderland. There have been animated features as well as other live action attempts. The characters have become iconic and have appeared in advertising campaigns and even an episode of Star Trek. The surprise isn’t that I feel like I know this story without having read the source material. The real surprise would be if there was anyone out in the civilized world who wasn’t familiar with these characters.
Lewis Carroll had been dead a full 60 years before Tim Burton was even born. Yet it’s hard to believe that they were never intimates. Anyone who has dared to journey through either man’s imagination has surely left with vivid images of extraordinary places and the most fascinating creatures. Both have painted their landscapes with their own particular laws of physics, where we can never be sure what is possible or not. It would seem that Tim Burton would be the perfect choice to bring Carroll’s Wonderland into the 21st century. And, for the most part, you would be correct.
While the film is loosely based on both of Carroll’s works, the film follows its own story. We see only a moment’s glimpse of the Alice we recognize. She has just returned from her adventure only to dismiss it as an elaborate dream. It’s 13 years later, and a more mature Alice (Wasikowska) has lost touch with her fanciful escapades. Her father has died, as has her inspiration. She is being forced into polite society and a fortuitous marriage to an English lord. But Alice isn’t quite sure she wants the life or ordinary nobility. There are still dreams to follow… as well as a familiar white rabbit with an oversized pocket watch. That is all the clue that Alice requires. She follows the rabbit and finds herself once again down the rabbit hole. This time, Wonderland is a darker place. Her return is looked upon with hope; that is, if she really is the right Alice. It’s been so long that her long forgotten friends are not quite sure. She makes her rounds through the old haunts where she finds her old friend, the Mad Hatter (Depp) waiting at his tea party, waiting for years for Alice’s return. The Red Queen (Carter) has firmly taken control of Underland and is about to destroy her sister, the White Queen (Hathaway) once and for all. Only Alice, if she really is Alice, can slay the Jabberwocky. We’re reminded time after time that “if it’s not Alice, it’s not dead”.
Like the film or not, you simply can’t argue with its success. The film has brought in over a trillion dollars in worldwide box office. There is plenty to marvel upon here, indeed. Tim Burton has once again created a dark and mysterious place with plenty of his trademark odd angles and spiral designs. His computer-generated and live-action characters appear as though they might have been plucked straight from the mind of Lewis Carroll himself. He’s assembled a very sharp list of voice talent for the CG characters and relies very much on his staple thespians of Johnny Depp and partner Helena Bonham Carter. Throw in Crispin Glover, as if the film needed any more creepy personalities, and you have one of the most exotic and imaginative creations you have ever seen. The blending of live action, computer characters, and green-screen backgrounds is perfectly seamless. There is no end to the absolutely stunning characters and set design. The story adds a rather nice twist to the Alice tales, and all seems just wonderful in wonderland. And, for the most part it is just so. You’ll merely have to settle for almost perfect.
You can make the argument, and I certainly do here, that Burton might have gotten just a touch ahead of himself and gone a little overboard. The forced distortions of characters like the Red Queen and the nearly silent pantomime of the White Queen scream a bit of excess to me. In fact, Carter is screaming all the time. It’s rather novel at first, but by the end of the film she’s lost her voice several times, and we’ve lost our patience. Johnny Depp certainly adds to his vast eclectic collection of performances, but perhaps the actor was buried just a tad too deeply this time. It’s not that Depp can’t pull it off. Of course, he can. The look was a touch distracting to the nearly deadpan performance. And don’t even get me started on the stupid dance that ends the film. Burton truly is a genius, but at times his desire to indulge himself is self-defeating. No argument that this stuff was pulled off to perfection. But I would have liked to see a little more emotion here. Unfortunately, the weakest link in the cast is Alice herself in the guise of young actress Mia Wasikowska. It’s not necessarily her fault, but she brings no passion to the part. She is bewildered without showing bewilderment, amazed without exhibiting amazement, inspired without offering inspiration. It doesn’t matter whether in Wonderland or reality, she is rather dull. I’m sure much of that can be blamed on Burton himself. He likes to present his characters in a stoic manner. The Red Queen is the only one who displays any passion, but, of course, because her face is so covered in prosthetic, we can’t see any of it. Hence, I suppose, all of that shouting.
Whatever side of that argument you might fall upon, there is little doubt that this version of Alice In Wonderland tells a magical tale in a style that will leave you with all kinds of fanciful impressions before it has ended. It moves at such a fast pace that it literally flies by quickly. Burton might have pushed the levels of excess in the production, but not with the Linda Woolverton screen adaptation of the Carroll works. The story is tight and original enough to keep you guess while still providing you with all of the characters and predicaments you expect from the story. That’s not an easy task. My hat’s off to Woolverton for pulling it off rather nicely, indeed. Taken with all of its flaws, the film is quite entertaining; I just don’t believe that it will be as enduring as some of Burton’s other masterpieces.
Alice In Wonderland is presented in its original aspect ratio of 1.78:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC/MPEG-4 codec at an average 22 mbps. Burton has delivered another amazing world that can only be appreciated in high definition. If you own a Blu-ray player, there really is no choice here. You simply must see it in high definition. To do otherwise would be acting mad as a hatter, indeed. The film boasts a razor-sharp image. The level of detail here enables you to revel in the care and effort made by the computer animators and the set designers. There is so much to take in here that it is impossible to do it all at once. Contrast is so superbly balanced here that there are great deviations of darkness and light that depend on the location or even the mood of certain characters. These subtle and not-so-subtle differences stand out with this superior transfer. Black levels are perfect, and when you are talking Tim Burton, they had better be. No one works with shadows better than he does. The colors are, at times, breathtaking. The Cheshire Cat is one instance of Pixar-like computer animation. You get nice color and some rather craft texture and an almost three-dimensional look to it all. This will be one of those show-off pieces for your HD theatre. It’s the best image I’ve seen this year.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 might not be quite as outstanding as the image, but it is pretty solid on all fronts. Danny Elfman’s score almost always has the power to carry you away. This one is no exception. The audio presentation does a super job of bringing out all of the themes in as dynamic sound as you could want. The sub comes to life at almost every turn. You will feel this film at all of the right moments. The surround mix is aggressive most of the time, and there is no end to the ear candy that will surround you in your room. Dialog comes just as clear as you have every right to expect. Unlike the image, this isn’t the best audio I’ve heard this year. It comes close, however.
It’s all in HD.
Wonderland Characters: (27:56) There are 6 segments in all. You can use the handy play-all option, of course. The characters profiled include Alice, the Mad Hatter and the Red & White Queens. Cast and crew join in to bring you a profile and evolution of the characters. Additional material here includes a feature on the obnoxious dance and some of the f/x. The Red Queen makeup gets a lot of attention here as well.
Making Wonderland: (19:29) Again there are 6 pieces with another convenient play-all option. Areas covered in this collection of production features include the score, stunts, green-screen work, production design, and even a segment on the cakes featured in the film.
DVD and Digital Copy
The visuals will not fail to immerse you into this strange and, dare I say, wonderful world. At times it is brighter than Burton’s universe is usually allowed to become, but don’t, for an instant, think of this as the bright and shiny world that most other incarnations of this story has delivered. This is not a remake or reimagining of any other version of the story. Some appear to expect the film to be like the Disney animated version from the 1950’s. The two have very little in common. It might be a tad intense for very young children, and the themes are often more adult than you would expect. It’s an enjoyable ride, if you allow it to be so. “There is a place. Like no place on Earth. A land full of wonder, mystery, and danger! Some say to survive it you need to be as mad as a hatter, which luckily I am.”