Imagination and insanity are the two key components of director Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, a fast-paced, visually striking take on Lewis Carroll's beloved children's story. Combining elements of both Alice in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, to create something completely original yet oddly familiar, Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King) create a story that can be considered as much a sequel to Alice's adventures as a re-imagining of them. By placing the film in a different context than Carroll's stories, however, Burton and Woolverton manage to make their Alice in Wonderland not only a surreal satire of the aristocracy, but also a testament to the power of independent and creative thinking, traits the brave young character inherited from her beloved father.
As a young girl, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) was haunted by a recurring dream that made her fear she was losing her mind. Comforted by her father, a successful businessman, she grows into a smart young woman with a penchant for questioning the status quo.
But was it really just a dream, or a memory of a past experience?
Years later, she's being courted by Lord Hamish (Leo Bill) when she follows the White Rabbit (voice of Michael Sheen) to an enormous tree, and tumbles into a hole that takes her to Underland, a strange world inhabited by anthropomorphic creatures in search of someone to save them from the dreaded Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who has assumed control of the kingdom by decapitating anyone who dares disagree with her. According to a scroll detailing a historical timeline of Underland -- including events that have not yet taken place -- it is Alice who will set the kingdom free by defeating the Jabberwocky, a powerful dragon-like creature under the control of the Red Queen. But is this Alice the same Alice who appears in the scroll? While some of the creatures of Underland have their doubts, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and his friends are certain she's the same girl who previously visited them years ago. When the Red Queen kidnaps the Mad Hatter, Alice attempts to free her friend and locate the one weapon with the power to defeat the Jabberwocky, thereby restoring the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to the throne and bringing peace back to Underland.
At the onset of his career, Tim Burton gained a reputation for crafting contemporary, highly original fables featuring dazzling visuals, dark comedy, and compelling characters. The release of Batman in 1989, however, marked a pronounced shift toward pre-existing properties that continues even today. With the exceptions of Edward Scissorhands, Mars Attacks!, Corpse Bride, and perhaps Ed Wood, all of his films since that time have either been creative reworkings of familiar stories, or outright remakes. Today, the number of non-derivative stories populating Burton's filmography nearly equals the number of stories we've seen before. He seems to be at his best when straddling these two worlds, and with Woolverton he's found a writer whose strong storytelling skills perfectly compliment his visual artistry. Her ability to tie in aspects of Alice's real life with her experiences in Underland makes this variation of the story something much more than enjoyable eye candy or a playful exercise in cinematic nonsense. It lends the film an emotional core that the original story never really had, and touches on universal themes about growing up that viewers of all ages can connect with.
As Alice, Wasikowska proves the perfect stand-in for the viewer; she's been to this world before, yet thanks to the changes that have taken place since her last visit, her recollections are somewhat fuzzy. At once courageous, curious, and caring, she brings a human sensibility to a place where chaos reigns. And while the human elements of the story provide a strong foundation, it's the characters of Underland that truly give the film its color. As the Mad Hatter, Depp may not have much of a brain, but his heart is most certainly in the right place. Bonham Carter plays the Red Queen for all she's worth, gleefully munching scenery as she berates her amphibious underlings for stealing her tarts, and constantly calling out for craniums; and Crispin Glover imbues the dreaded Knave of Hearts with his usual creepy charm. The creature design for the animal characters provides them with the perfect personalities to match the top-notch voice work of actors like Stephen Fry (Cheshire Cat) and Alan Rickman (Blue Caterpillar), giving their characters a sense of gravity that makes them every bit as real as the actors whose faces actually appear onscreen. Even if Burton has veered away from telling original stories, his visuals still possess the power to dazzle, and with Alice in Wonderland he succeeds in making the familiar feel fresh and exciting.