Much like Peter Pan, Alice in Wonderland is a story that has become a bit lost in the many retellings. Tim Burton‘s effort sidesteps (or hopes to) the difficulty by telling a different story. This story is a revisit, literally. Alice returns to Wonderland, meets the old crew, and embarks upon something like a similar adventure, but things are nevertheless rather different this time around (not least because it has Through the Looking Glass elements thrown in as well).
We meet Alice as a young girl who is having bad dreams about smiling cats, and blue caterpillars. Her father is a businessman with dreams so big that he generally doesn’t even make sense to the people around him. He consoles his daughter, who wonders if she might be going mad because of her dreams by telling her that she is indeed quite mad. But, he offers, all the best people are.
Fast forward a decade or so, and Alice is on the verge of accepting a marriage proposal, and simply doesn’t know what to do. She is thankfully distracted by a rustling in the bushes, and makes her way down the rabbit hole. The first note of dissimilarity comes in the form of several familiar characters wanting to know if she is actually “the” Alice, or simply “a” Alice.
Before she has a chance to get her bearings in the strange land, she is also told, by way of a magic calendar, that if she is “the” Alice, then she is going to slay the Jabberwocky. Contrariwise, if she doesn’t, then she’s not, but coming the other way, if she does, then she is.
We meet Johnny Depp‘s brilliant Mad Hatter, the decidedly mad Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), and the mostly mad everyone else, and we discover that Wonderland is a dire place to live with Red running things. While Alice is mostly concerned with waking up, she plays along in much the spirit of one who is mostly concerned with waking up, but as she makes her way around, she finds that she is perhaps unhappy enough with what she finds to look into this vorpal sword business.
The thing about Alice in Wonderland is that it truly is a crazy story. It is filled with odd and wild encounters, but in a sense more akin to the original versions of the Grimm stories, or perhaps Gulliver’s Travels than something that pops to mind when you talk of dancing bunnies… or Disney. The Grimm tales generally survive a whitewashing rather well, because the story is still there whether or not the guts and torture make an appearance, but something leaves Alice (or Gulliver’s Travels) when it loses its madness, because madness is the point.
Here then is the perfect venue for Burton, who is possibly understood best when least understandable. Alice delivers Burton’s trademark visual styling in a way that fits better than it has since Edward Scissorhands, but it also manages his best storytelling since Big Fish, and probably because the general theories are actually so similar. It’s gorgeous, bizarre, and bigger-than-life, but with purpose, and as seen through the lens of someone making good on the idea that he knows why it is those things.
From another, but similar angle, the original story is trying to talk about the world a lot more than it is usually given the freedom to do, and this version injects a lot of that back into things. It is not that these are ridiculous things, but that these are other ridiculous things, and when that point gets lost, so does most everything else. The Red Queen (of the giant head) has a court that pretends at similarly giant features in order to remain in favor, but it is only the extreme that diverges from real life, not the action itself. That servants as both animals and furniture is not to be overlooked as another example.
After many a spin and stumble that only Wonderland can provide, Alice locks onto the idea of what is and isn’t impossible, and believing impossible things. Her father used to say that he believed six impossible things before breakfast, and eventually Alice seems to actually hone in on the angle of madness, and perhaps who her father was. For some, it may be a bit difficult to believe in talking animals, or living playing cards, but the trick there is that no one and nothing is trying to stop you from believing in them… not really. But, the things that try to stop you from believing in yourself come on brillig days, and have the jaws that bite and the claws that catch… and usually… think you’re mad.
Below enjoy a couple of cool videos, including the trailer and a featurette.
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