When I heard that Disney was producing a live-action version of Alice in Wonderland I was both nervous and excited. I was never a fan of the animated “classic” and I felt it missed the point of the books entirely. So the new version offered a chance to either fix the mistakes of the earlier version (a la 2003’s Peter Pan), or a chance to fail again. Then when I heard it would be a Tim Burton/ Johnny Depp collaboration, my heart sank. The last time they did a remake/adaptation we were left with the absolutely horrible Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. But I still had faith in the duo, with their many previous successes and their tremendous pool of talent to draw from. As the cast filled out better than I had hoped, and the images and trailers began emerging I allowed myself to hope that this time I wouldn’t be disappointed. When I found out that it was based on an original take of Alice’s story, rather than a direct translation, my excitement reached its peak. But I never, ever would have guessed what we were in store for.
Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a masterpiece. It’s funny and bizarre and exciting, it’s empowering and touching, and completely unexpected. He took a children’s classic and crafted a feminist, adventure both epic and intimate. Making Alice a 19 year old rebel, fighting against the conformity of society gives the story more weight than it ever had as the absurdist fantasy of a 7 year old. Alice shows up with her mother at a surprise engagement party, and finds herself being asked for her hand by the worst suitor ever (complete with his own digestive blockages!). Deciding she needs a moment to compose herself, Alice runs off after a white rabbit in a waistcoat with a pocket watch, falls down a hole and ends up in Underland (not to be called Wonderland). Things are not right in this world, far from bright and cheery and silly, things are dangerous and repressive and violent. After a quick encounter with a talking caterpillar, Alice is attacked by a vicious, hairy monster and set on a path toward her destiny: slaying the Jabberwocky, an enormous dragon.
Burton brought together a wonderful cast together to play his menagerie of characters. They’re all brilliantly designed and animated, many a combination of live action and effects. Burton’s wife, Helena Bonham Carter, plays the “bloody” Red Queen, delightfully twisted and evil, with an enormous head. She rules over Underland, screaming “Off with their heads” at every available opportunity. Crispin Glover plays her creepy henchman, the Knave of Hearts, obsessive and just as twisted as his Queen. Alice’s animal cohorts, the White Rabbit, the hilarious March Hare, the Dormouse, Bayard the bloodhound and the rest all present memorable characters with fleeting moments of screen time. Alan Rickman’s perfectly voiced, hookah-smoking caterpillar delights whenever he’s on screen. Tweedle-dee and Tweedle-dum are the cutest, bumbling goofballs you can imagine. Anne Hathaway was an odd choice to join this merry band of eccentric actors, but she’s pitch perfect as the White Queen, sister to the evil Red Queen, who stands for all things good and proper, and brews some disgusting potions in her spare time. And the electricity-spewing Jabberwocky is as believable a talking dragon as you’re likely to see onscreen.
The revelation, of course, is Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. At this point, it’s impossible to expect anything but greatness and creativity from Depp, but he outdoes even himself this time. His intermittently-Scottish Hatter drips barely concealed madness, bubbling just below the surface, occasionally bursting out of him, mixed with anger at the state of things. But as Alice herself says, all the best people are mad, and he truly steals the show. At times goofy and sweet, at others tortured and tragic, occasionally a little scary, and even a badass hero (he fights using a Scottish claymore!), he brings so much to a character that could have easily turned into a joke, or even worse, an annoyance. He stays burned in your mind long after the movie’s over, from his orange hair to his childish voice to his repeated riddle, “How is a raven like a writing desk?” It may be Alice’s story, but it’s Depp’s movie.
As things get curiouser and curiouser, Alice learns who she really is, and how to find her place in the world. She finds that who she is has nothing to do with who others think she is or should be. All good lessons for everyone to learn, especially the young girls who would look up to and admire Alice. She’s a feminist role model, with more “muchness” than even she realized she had. She’s wonderfully played by Mia Wasikowska, who manages to assert her character without overshadowing the absurd beauty and chaos she’s surrounded by in Underland. She’s graceful and strong and confident, providing our anchor and our point of view in the story. It’s rare that a “reimagining” of a story so well-known and classic as this manages to feel fresh and exciting, and bring something new to the table. It’s an absolute joy, one that everyone should take the time to see. And I didn’t even mention the futterwacken!