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Oscar Flashback: Alice in Wonderland (2010)

A film I caught on television from the beginning (which is a rare occurrence for me) is Alice in Wonderland, for which Robert Stromberg and Karen O'Hara won the Best Art (and Set) Direction Oscar; for which Colleen Atwood won the Best Costume Design Oscar; and for which Ken Ralston, David Schaub, Carey Villegas, and Sean Phillips were nominated for the Best Visual Effects Oscar (film year, 2010; awarding year, 2011). The other nominees in these categories were:

Best Art Direction

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I *
Inception *
The King's Speech *
True Grit

Best Costume Design

I Am Love
The King's Speech *
The Tempest
True Grit

Best Visual Effects

Inception (Winner) *

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I *
Iron Man 2

Alice in Wonderland is one of my favorite books, one of my favorite stories, and there aren't many filmed incarnations of this strange and fantastic tale that I haven't seen. When it was announced that Tim Burton would be directing a new, if Disney-endorsed, version, I was all a-twitter with excitement. After all, Burton's visual panache and thorough sense of the weird promised to serve the whimsically illogical plot thread of Alice's adventures quiet nicely. I planned to see the film in the cinemas, but, upon release of the film, the reviews began to come in and were of such a mixed variety that I was scared away from those high ticket prices. I still resolved to see it, though, and when the film appeared on pay cable over the holidays (catching up, still), I excitedly sat down to watch it.

This Alice in Wonderland is slightly different, however, than the Alice in Wonderland as originally penned by Lewis Carroll. In this film, Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) is 19 years old and is troubled by an odd recurring dream while mourning the death of her beloved father. She is forced to attend the garden party of a stately lord who worked for her father; her guardian hopes that a marriage proposed to Lord Ascot's son will soon result. Alice finds that she does not understand or fit in to the morays of this high society and is soon distracted by the presence of a white rabbit in a waistcoat, who disappears amongst the garden hedges. She chases the rabbit, only to fall into a seemingly bottomless rabbit hole. The story begins in a familiar enough manner, with Alice discovering the finer points of items that appear and instruct her to eat or drink them, but she soon realizes that the inhabitants of Underland seem to know her and/or guess that she is the Alice of a prophecy foretelling her feat of slaying the Red Queen's (Helena Bonham Carter) Jabberwocky (voiced by Christopher Lee) on something called Frabjous Day and bringing peace to the realm of Underland through the restoration of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to power. Familiar characters appear to aid Alice in her quest and her slow but steady navigation of this surreal dream world, including the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and the Mad Hatter (dreamy Johnny Depp), even as Alice can't quite believe that she is in Underland or is the Alice that everyone is hoping she is.

Having entered into the film's viewing with mitigated expectations, I wasn't sure how to react at first blush. After all, this wasn't the Alice with which I am familiar.

Alice in Wonderland might catch the viewer by surprise because this is not the Alice of the books but, rather, an engaging re-imagining of the tale, owing largely to Tim Burton's creative connections to the extraordinary and his innate sense of visual artistry. The film's visual presentation is no less than stunning from art direction to costumes to cinematography to makeup to the visual effects. The reason why the film earned so many related Oscar nominations is that the world of Underland (or Wonderland) is so completely envisioned: it's vibrantly colored and deftly fanciful. When evil influences emerge, the film takes on a dark and sinister quality, similar to the edgy presentations of Burton's A Nightmare Before Christmas or Sleepy Hollow. When kind or good-hearted characters appear, the palate changes. The White Queen is radiant in her glowing corner of the kingdom, the Red Queen is something of a boldly-colored abomination with her exaggerated features and obsession with "bigness" (hilariously accentuated in her courtly sycophants by various prosthetics); the Mad Hatter's addled brain is reflected in his environment, which is hued with an ambiguous and unsightly gray. The sights and sounds of this mixture of CGI and live performance tell the story almost better than the actual characters.

The story itself, though, in this version of Alice is a bit convoluted, which is saying something, because Alice and her literary adventures can be quite strange and hard to read at times. While Burton and Linda Woolverton, the screenwriter, successfully achieved the dark, edgy whimsy of the source material, this Alice treads a bit too closely to the American McGhee video game version of the character (without the disturbing psychopathy). Burton's and Woolverton's story is about a woman finding her voice and her identity in a society that would otherwise suppress it. It's a wonderful story, to be sure, and Wasikowska is up to the challenge of playing a bemused young adult teetering upon the crest of childhood flights of fancy and trying to navigate her own self-discovery, but the film fails to effectively marry Alice's real life woes with the quest upon which she ultimately embarks. In fact, the outcome of her journey doesn't exactly gel with the setting from which Alice begins her adventure, leaving the entire affair a bit too surreal. The execution of this idea is still enjoyable, though, because the spirit of Carroll's writing is there, but, in the end, this new story makes almost less sense than the original story, at least with the first viewing.

Also, the performances of the ensemble this film are a hodgepodge of wonderfully engaging and effective to plain off base. Again, Wasikowska is a decent Alice, and dreamy Johnny Depp offers an interestingly daft if unoffensive take of the Mad Hatter, infusing him with the titular madness but also rendering him endearing. The strictly voice performances were well cast. Yet, supporting turns by some of the other actors were almost too strange to be palatable. Hathaway's White Queen was a bit of a mess, playing an energetic fairy-like creature with the gusto of a psychiatric patient, an odd performance choice, even if her environment invites such oddness. Carter's Red Queen proved to be another boring caricature in a long line of caricatures that she portrays in many of her long-time boyfriend's films, and her Knave of Hearts, as played by Crispin Glover (George McFly, y'all) offered all of the necessary creepiness without any of that annoying chemistry or charisma that people like Depp bring to the proceedings. The character with the most depth and most engaging portrayal would probably be the Mad Hatter, even if the story is not ultimately his.

As messy and unfocused as this picture tends to be, however, Alice in Wonderland manages to effectively tickle the imagination and engage the viewer. I've actually watched it twice now because it achieves that viewer connection, even if the viewer might be scratching his or her head while watching the film. Also, Avril Lavigne's song contribution to the film is quite lovely, even haunting: Avril Lavigne's Alice. It's unfortunate that the song is not played until the closing credits roll.

In the end, Alice in Wonderland may not be the best version of the young heroine's journey into the strange and unknown, but it's not the worst, either. If nothing else, the film presents a positive message for young women and features dreamy Johnny Depp (even if his storied good looks are camouflaged by layers of makeup), whose partnership with Burton is nothing short of a well-oiled acting/directing machine. After consideration, I think Alice in Wonderland is a quintessential 7 on the patented ratings scale for being shaky but entertaining. Still, I think it passes the test. Like I said, I watched it a second time, as it was instantly available on Netflix, and it holds up well on a repeat viewing, as long as one does not focus upon the film's less excellent qualities; certainly, the truly excellent and wonderful qualities are what render Alice in Wonderland worth the watch.

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