Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” is equal parts Lewis Carroll and Grace Slick. It’s inspired by Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” but also, apparently, by Slick’s psychedelic ’60s anthem, “White Rabbit.” It’s a trip, man.
“Wonderland” becomes “Underland” in Burton’s film of Linda Wolverton’s script, as an older Alice drops out of her engagement party in Victorian England and back down that rabbit hole of her youth. It’s been the source of her nightmares since childhood and she thinks, in between shrinkings and expansions and encounters with caterpillars, Cheshire cats, March hares and the like, that if she pinches herself, she’ll wake up.
Burton has imagined what at times is a literally eye-popping world of beasties, Scots accents and gloom. “Logic and proportion” go out the window as Alice drinks this and shrinks, eats that and grows, and everyone and everything around her is stretched, bulbously blown up or otherwise deformed in endlessly inventive ways. Whatever the virtues of “Avatar,” this is the most fanciful use of 3-D ever to hit the big screen.
And Burton has cast it near perfectly. Anne Hathaway is a pale and dainty “Glenda the Good Witch” sort of White Queen. HUGE-headed Helena Bonham Carter is the eternally ill-tempered Red Queen, barking at her court of freaks and frogs and her playing-card soldiers in an Elizabethan temper.
“OFF with their heads!”
And Johnny Depp, as a madder-than-usual hatter in revolt against that tyrant, toys with a Highland accent.
“Dooooon with the bloody Red Queen!” he purrs.
What Wolverton turned this wondrous and metaphorical journey into is a fairly conventional, “Shrek”-ish fairytale of the forces of good rallying behind Alice, who is shoved into battle with the evil Red Queen’s champion – the dragon Jabberwocky. Purists will squeal, but it’s a workable and watchable liberty to take with an oft-filmed yet impossible to film novel.
This returning Alice (Mia Wasikowska) may not be “the real Alice.” That’s the silky, smokey opinion of the wise caterpillar (Alan Rickman’s voice animating a purple insect in a haze of hookah smoke). She has to remember how to be Alice, this time in Underland.
Wasikowska may be more a lovely but blank-faced blonde presence than a spunky, charismatic and curious Alice. But Stephen Fry is a deliciously above-it-all Cheshire Cat, Michael Sheen a less-addled-than-we’d-like White Rabbit and Timothy Spall voices the ever-faithful bloodhound Bayard. Crispin Glover is stretched and eye-patched to perfection as the murderous Knave of Hearts.
Snatches of Carroll poetry and jibber-jabber pepper the oft-nonsensical and occasionally unfathomable dialogue. But the Carroll characters are here, mostly as you remember them.
And if it’s not the Alice of your Disney childhood, enjoy the trip. Just remember, as Grace Slick sang, “what the dormouse said. Feed your head. Feed your head.”