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Alice in Wonderland film adaptation

alice in wonderland posterTim Burton has played a trick on movie-goers. His latest movie may be called Alice in Wonderland, but Lewis Carroll’s nineteenth-century classic it is not.

Burton’s cinematic spin on Carroll’s books, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass and What Alice Saw There, features a teenage Alice, a dictatorial Red Queen, a Cheshire cat who “doesn’t get involved in politics,” a resistance-leading Mad Hatter, and a swashbuckling Dormouse. The tale is set in a beautiful, dark wasteland called Underland (not, viewers are told, to be confused with Wonderland). The movie might be considered a trippy aesthetic feast, but in choosing not to follow Carroll’s storylines or stay true to the original characters Burton has created something new: a sentimental fantasy cloaked in a classic’s name.

The movie begins with the child Alice suffering from nightmares about Wonderland before moving ahead to nineteen-year-old Alice’s story. Teenage Alice, played by a corpse-pale Mia Wasikowska, has all sorts of questions: Should she marry a lord? What would it be like to fly? And why does she continue to have the same nightmare? Aren’t dreams supposed to change? She finds the answers when she falls down the rabbit hole again.

Alice meets Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the White Rabbit, the Dormouse, et al. and learns that not only do they already know her but it’s been prophesied she will kill the dreaded Jabberwocky. Thus the conflict begins. The evil Red Queen, played with humor and high energy by Helena Bonham Carter, must be deposed with help from Alice and friends so that her sister, the White Queen (played as a ditzy pacifist by Anne Hathaway), can rule.

Alice’s wishy-washiness about fighting the Jabberwocky grows tiresome, and purist viewers may find themselves longing for the little girl in a blue dress who holds her own at a mad tea party or a game of flamingo croquet. Wasikowska does a noble job of creating a feisty heroine, but Alice’s charm is all spunk here, with little of her quick wit.

The many sentimental soaring-score moments where Alice struggles to figure out her destiny give viewers time to appreciate the stunningly dark world Burton has created: a giant chess board is a battlefield, the Red Queen’s castle curves into heart shapes wherever architecturally possible, and the hookah-smoking caterpillar imparts wisdom from a hazy forest of mushrooms. The makeup and costumes are as impressive as the landscape. The Red Queen’s lips are a perfect bow and complement the clown-red hair on top of her oversized head. And as Alice morphs from large to small to large again, her right-off-the-runway outfits are masterpieces that could easily grace a socialite’s closet. Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter meets much-hyped expectations. With electric green eyes and hair the color of a traffic cone, Depp’s Hatter is manic, sad, and the right amount of mad.

Overall, it seems as if Burton and his collaborators deliberately chose to make their story as different as possible. Wise perhaps? Lewis Carroll’s nonsense and absurdity might be impossible to translate to the silver screen. But in trying so hard to be unique, Burton misses the magic of Carroll’s world. Just as Alice pondered the use of a book without pictures or conversations, we can ask “what is the use of a Wonderland without any wonder?”

About Chelsey Philpot

Chelsey Philpot, former editorial assistant of The Horn Book Guide, is the author of the YA novel Even in Paradise.

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