Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Alice in Underland

Tonight I took in the new Tim Burton/Disney movie, Alice in Wonderland. It's not exactly a film adaptation of the Lewis Carroll classic. Actually it's kind of a sequel, showing Alice (Mia Wasikowska) approaching age 20, faced with the narrow range of choices open to a young lady in Victorian England, confused by a horse-faced bore's proposal of marriage, and plagued by what she regards as hallucinations straight out of the recurring dream she has had since childhood. So she runs away from it all, follows a waistcoated white rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen, late of Frost/Nixon), falls down a rabbit hole, and gets caught up in a quest to save Underland (not Wonderland) from the Red Queen.

The characters she meets are an indiscriminate blend of those the younger Alice met both in Wonderland and through the looking-glass. The villain, for example, is a cross between the Queen of Hearts and the Red Queen (played by a big-headed Helena Bonham Carter), and her henchman is both a knight and a knave (played by Crispin Glover). The red queen's nemesis is quite simply the White Queen (Anne Hathaway in a blonde wig). She also meets a blue, hookah-smoking caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), a talking dog (Timothy Spall), a dodo bird (Michael Gough), and most importantly the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp).

While we're having a cast-gasm, anyone who has seriously considered who would win in a duel between Gandalf and Dumbledore will be interested to note that Alice's father is played by Marton Csokas (lately Celeborn, Galadriel's significant other in The Lord of the Rings); the March Hare is voiced by the same Paul Whitehouse who played the equally mad Sir Cadogan in Harry Potter & the Prisoner of Azkaban; daffy Aunt Imogene is played by Frances de la Tour (Madame Maxime in Harry Potter & the Goblet of Fire); the talking flowers are voiced by Imelda Staunton (Delores Umbridge in Harry Potter & the Order of the Phoenix); and of course, everyone will recognize the voice of the Jabberwocky as belonging to Christopher Lee (lately Saruman the wizard in LOTR). It's like a fantasy film franchise reunion here. And that's still not all the familiar faces in this flick - IMDB it yourself!

Anyway, in this sumptuously cast, part-live-action, part-CGI-animation twist on the classic nonsense tale, young Alice slowly works out that the world she has dreamed of since childhood is really there. And the denizens of that world slowly recognize that she is really "the" Alice, who is prophesied to wield the Vorpal Sword, slay the Jabberwocky, and restore the White Queen to her throne, which has been usurped by her grotesque sister who has roses for hair, valentine-shaped lips, and a habit of chirping "off with his/her head" as regularly as Grape Ape says his own name. (Full disclosure: Grape Ape does not appear in this film.)

Luckily, after the first seven minutes or so, no one is expecting this movie to be anything like a faithful adaptation of the nursery favorite. Instead, it's a joyfully bizarre, visionary adventure in a world full of danger and magic. The only bit I object to is the end, where Alice goes back to the real world with an anachronistically feminist outlook. Sorry, I read too many books from and about that time to believe that any girl in Alice's position could have thought, let alone said and done, what Alice does at the end of this movie -- nor, even if she had, been allowed to go on so doing. Not that it isn't a happy ending. It's just the type of happy ending that broadcasts what I consider to be the clearest message of this film: "Few people living today understand what the world was like before the late 19th century. The rest of us shouldn't even bother trying."

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