In an attempt to reconcile the absurdity of the world around her, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) remembers the words of her father who once said he thought of six impossible things before breakfast. For many, the inherit ridiculous exaggeration of Wonderland and the bizarre logic that it contains will be off-putting. It’s simply impossible. It’s a pack of rubbish, all lies but that doesn’t stop from all the truths packed in that deck of lies.
Alice is a strange 19-year-old stuck in the stuffy societies of Victorian Europe. She’s to be the betrothed to a rich young lord but when he pops the question she flees after an odd white rabbit and down into Wonderland. It’s here that bizarre creatures go on about whether or not she might be “The” Alice to slay the Jabberwocky and free the kingdom from the hot-headed Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and restore it to the benevolent White Queen (Anne Hathaway). To help her along the way is Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), an odd man that verges between the whimsical and disturbed.
But wait, this isn’t the children’s book I read as a kid. It sounds more like a dark The Lion, The Witch and the Wardrobe than the fantastic journey of the original Alice. And it isn’t. In a way, the real joy of the film is how it throws off the shackles of the book (which I dearly love) and becomes something else entirely. It’s wrapped up in a bit of what is popular in order to ensure financial success but it does a fantastic job of capturing the spirit of Alice and the strange creatures she meets.
Perhaps the greatest departure is how deep the film delves into the character of Mad Hatter. The cynical movie buff in me would simply point out that this is an attempt to have more crazy Johnny Depp time but I’ve got to say that it’s his story that I found the most interesting. The way it slowly develops his personality, pulls back layers and then give the big reveal kept me interested. And this is a feat as Depp has always been off-putting in the past for me. His crazy logic is a guise to hide what I found to be a truly tragic character.
This is in keeping with the much darker tone of the film. Since the Harry Potter films, there has been a gradual increase of violence and darkness in children’s films. I’ve no idea how this film received a PG rating and I’d warn parents that this film is likely too much for children. There is decapitation and a couple of scenes of eye gouging. It’s done in a cartoony way with the CG graphics, but there’s an immediacy to the explicit violent that might be too intense for most children.
In the same way, the film might be a bit too indulgent in its spectacle. I personally loved the eye candy and found the way the film played with colors and proportions to be fun and entertaining but I could see how it could quickly wear on some. On some level, the plot is geared to build towards a climactic battle in the third act that the film really doesn’t need. And the celebratory scene after the battle is a cringe-worthy and corny scene that only makes the act weaker.
What are not weak are the glaring criticisms that the film has about society. A lot of the film is spent with Red Queen and her entire court provides all kinds of interesting insights. For one, there’s the heavy-handed judicial system where the slightest offense is cause for a good decapitation. I’m sure Carter tired of yelling “off with its head.” She also proves unnecessarily consumerist, exploiting animals for frivolously unnecessary things such as a footrest. And then there’s the entire notion of a society of simple facades.
And it’s how the film finds all kinds of truths out of the seemingly absurd and contrary that endears me to the material. Some people seem to have “grow out” of such silly tales at this. For me, I never cease to enjoy these “silly” tales. It allows once more for me to don the eyes of the child, to see how ridiculous the world of adults with and help me from ever taking myself too seriously.
© 2010 James Blake Ewing