Unable to imagine a title better suited to current 3D technology than “Alice in Wonderland,” I am happy to report that Tim Burton’s new version of the Lewis Carroll stories fulfills James Cameron’s empty boast of initiating a new era in cinema technology. “Alice in Wonderland” puts “Avatar” back in the dollhouse with the rest of the toy stories and shows the world how live-action and animation can truthfully be blended into a new art form.
One of the biggest problems with 3D cinematography is the tendency for objects, not only to become smaller as they move away from the camera, but to lose the stability of their dimensional form. Most of the current 3D movies choose to ignore this altogether, the result being a nightmare in visual perspective. Burton doesn’t solve the problem, but he adapts it to his subject matter. With altered perspectives being integral to Wonderland, the drastic variability of movable forms just adds to the delight of frustration that enchants and exasperates Alice.
Paramount went to great trouble in trying to replicate Sir John Tenniel's drawings for the 1933 live action version of the story, but when compared to the flights of imagination on display in the 1951 Disney cartoon, one sees how impossible it was to make even a semi-realistic film from Carroll’s stories. All this has changed today, and Burton has the advantages of a live cast at the service of a full animation staff to manufacture imaginary characters made of flesh and blood.
Helena Bonham Carter, she with the face only Kenneth Branagh could love, finds her true calling as the Red Queen, her bulbous head the centerpiece of a court where her subjects curry favor by adding prosthetic grotesqueries to their alarmingly normal features. The 1933 version may have had W. C Fields as Humpty Dumpty, but 2010 finds Matt Lucas getting even rounder with his double duty as Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum. There are even some retro-surprises to be found, such as the inspired casting of usually popular Crispin Glover as The Knave of Hearts. And of course, that man turned cartoon himself, Johnny Depp adorably running hither and yonder as The Mad Hatter. Compared to all these characters, Mia Wasikowska is almost too bland as Alice, who knows it is all a dream, but cannot arouse herself to re-enter a reality that is duller than Dorothy’s Kansas.
The sets and costumes are unmistakable Burton, but refreshingly inspired by Tenniel's drawings, and the whole affair is turbo-charged with 3D effects that hurtle us through the rabbit hole right along with Alice. One of the smart choices Burton and screen-writer Linda Woolverton have made is to raise Alice’s age to eighteen, set the story on her second trip to Wonderland, and to explore alternate material rather than simply retell the familiar episodes. Alice is also presented as something of a proto-feminist, and her resistance to marriage and contemporary fashions adds interest to the otherwise dull introductory scenes.
This “Alice in Wonderland” is both a throwback to the days when children’s stories weren’t only for children, as well as a challenge to the makers of today’s family pictures to get their heads out of sandbox and start coming up with some ideas that will stimulate young people, not lobotomize them.