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March 14, 2010

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Whimsy without wonder

IN Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," Alice has grown, (not by "drink me" potion or "eat me" cake)? into a 19-year-old girl.

Working from Linda Woolverton's very Hollywood screenplay adaptation of Lewis Carroll's classic tale, Burton shifts the story from a child Alice to a near-adult Alice, viewing her journey through a drearier, more dangerous looking-glass.

We glimpse the prim, Victorian child of Carroll's tale in the film's opening as she's awakens from what sounds like her trip to Wonderland. Her father tells her that her deranged dreams do indeed mean she's bonkers, but he assures, "All the best people are."

It's a neat line and it's at the heart of Burton's 3-D version of Carroll's beloved book, which also draws heavily from its sequel, "Through the Looking-Glass." It was shot in 2-D, but transferred to 3-D afterward, and its effects are more distracting than spectacular.

One does, though, get a bit queasy hearing of such classics "updated" as if they're local TV newscasts.

The film quickly fast-forwards 13 years and Alice (played by the startlingly promising Mia Wasikowska, who previously impressed watchers of HBO's "In Treatment") is lured back to Wonderland by the familiar, punctually paranoid rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen).

She flees a white and pastel-colored reality (where she is being arranged with great orchestration to marry a man she disdains) and falls down the hole, which sits at the base of a tree that could very well be the same one from Burton's "Sleepy Hollow."

Alice doesn't remember her last trip to Wonderland. This time, the plot is similar, but slightly different. It's Underland, not Wonderland. The tea party is more faded and ramshackle. Alice is beset by questions that she's "the wrong Alice."

This Alice is far from Carroll's. Where the Alice of the 1865 book is confused and essentially on a journey of self-discovery, Burton's Alice is more sure of herself. The exchange with the smoking blue caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman) is less "Who-o-o are you-o-o?" and more about Alice proving herself - to the caterpillar and everyone else.

"This is my dream. I make the path," she says.

Girl power

Burton's "Alice" reflects today's times more than Carroll's era. There's triumph over the "dominion over living things" practiced by the cruel, big-headed Red Queen (a brilliantly thin-skinned Helena Bonham Carter), and there's Alice's girl power. By the end, she confidently returns to begin, of all things, a business endeavor in China.

The take-home lesson of Carroll's tale is something quite different. It's not fuel for upright adulthood, but "the simple and loving heart of her childhood."

Burton's film is not lacking whimsy. Much of its design is wonderfully imaginative - surely the biggest draw of the movie. Credit also goes to the visual effects of Ken Ralston and the costumes of Colleen Atwood. There are elegant moments - the overhead shot of Alice shrinking into the billows of her dress, or the great, big slobbering tongue of the beastly Bandersnatch. The incredibly tweaky March Hare (voiced by Paul Whitehouse) is also a joy.

But Burton has beefed up the original story so that it feels less personal and more like the many action films about young, maturing heroes who must slay a giant villain. Danny Elfman's score keeps the mood dark.

The Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) passes curiously without energy, like a bow made out of courtesy.

And then there's the Mad Hatter, a role so befitting Johnny Depp (working with Burton for the seventh time, pictured above) that it might seem too obvious for him. There is a trace of the been-there-done-that to Depp's somewhat rootless performance, but wishing for him to cut back on playing mad clowns would be like telling Fred Astaire to quit all that dancing.

The many moving parts - Anne Hathaway slides in nicely as the White Queen, Crispin Glover is the Knave of Hearts - nevertheless add up to less than a good "Alice." The 1933 version with Cary Grant and W.C. Fields may still take the cake. Though Burton's film boasts some excellent performances, as the caterpillar says to our heroine, it's merely "almost Alice."


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