March 4, 2010 at 4:37 pm

Tom Long Film Review: 'Alice in Wonderland' -- GRADE: B

Review: Tim Burton's 'Alice' is a visually stunning coming-of-age fairy tale

Tom Long reviews' Alice in Wonderland'
Tom Long reviews' Alice in Wonderland': Tom Long reviews' Alice in Wonderland'

There's no denying the dazzle in director Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," a visually imaginative fairy tale that suffers slightly from its predictable course but still manages to wow at all the crucial moments.

Much of that wow factor can be attributed directly to the look of the familiar fantastical characters on display, most notably Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter, a frizzy, carrot-topped concoction who takes on heroic sensibilities, and even moreso Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen, a bulbous-headed ferocity sporting a makeup job straight from Kabuki hell.

From "Edward Scissorhands" forward Burton has always proven himself a master of the garish, and here he exults in the story's eye candy opportunities, as well he should.

Unfortunately, Burton has also let his affection for outrageous visuals get the best of his films ("Planet of the Apes," "Sweeney Todd," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory") at times, forgetting to attach enough heart and soul to them.

But while it's true "Alice" marches toward the same Big Battle conclusion as every other Narnia-Rings fantasy, the story's over-riding sense of wonder and purpose gives it a sweetness Burton's other recent films have lacked.

Selling that sense of wonder is the job of unknown Mia Wasikowska as a 19-year-old Alice who only remembers her first trip down the rabbit hole as a dream.

Burton constructs a nice frame that introduces Alice's plight -- some dork of a nobleman is proposing marriage, and she seems doomed to a life of dull normalcy at best.

But then she spots the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) and follows him to his hole, which she promptly falls into, setting off a déjÀ vu of a story where she's introduced to the kooky characters -- the blue caterpillar (Alan Rickman), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) -- from her dream.

This, however, is not the same Wonderland of Alice's youth. The tyrannical Red Queen, aided by her one-eyed right-hand man the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover, perfect), has thrown a blanket of fear over the land.

Luckily, legend has it that a brave warrior will soon arrive to help the White Queen (impossibly white Anne Hathaway) defeat her evil sister by slaughtering the monstrous Jabberwocky.

Unfortunately for Alice, she is that presumed warrior-savior; so the forces of evil are out to get her from the moment she arrives, and an alliance with the crazed Mad Hatter turns out to only add an extra dose of danger to her life.

Wasikowska, powdered white to distraction at times, plays Alice as something of a casually fierce angel, able to roll along with wild circumstance while instinctively righteous.

Depp is in full Depp bonkers glory as the Hatter, rattling on like a train off its track at times, but providing a surprising moral center. And Hathaway's fluttery life-is-beauty hand motions as the White Queen are hilarious.

Still, the film's most arresting image is the Red Queen. How Burton manages to balance that humongous head on that petite torso is the stuff of movie magic, and Bonham Carter's sudden eruptions of fury are wonderful to behold.

Burton has uglied up Bonham Carter, his longtime partner in real life, in many a role over the years -- a hag in "Sweeney Todd," a gorilla in "Apes," as the witch in "Big Fish" -- but with the Red Queen they've both outdone themselves.

One area that might cause some disappointment for audiences, though, is the 3-D projection. The effects are perfectly adequate, but in a post-"Avatar" world, they still seem a bit lacking, added more as afterthoughts (which they likely were since the movie wasn't actually shot in 3-D).

Still, "Alice in Wonderland" is an undeniable visual marvel and the best use of Burton's eye in at least a decade. If its trajectory is a bit too familiar, its attitude, look and execution make up for it. This is indeed a "Wonderland" worth visiting.

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Mia Wasikowska as Alice, center, prepares to defend Wonderland with the help of Johnny Depp, left, as the Mad Hatter and Anne Hathaway's White Queen. / Disney
Familiar characters from Lewis Carrol's classic, such as the White ... (Disney)
Tim Burton's version of Wonderland is filled with visual flourishes. (Disney)