I knew going in that I wasn't going to see a retelling of Alice. If the vibratingly bright posters of a big-headed Red Queen, a blanched White Queen, and an over-decorated Mad Hatter weren't enough of a hint, I had just read Manohla Dargis's New York Times review, which can only be described as a stinker. Also, I'm not a big fan of 3D. Except in Coraline (which I did not see in 3D, even though I could tell when Henry Selick was using it), it seems to me that the special effects all too often get in the way of the story they purport to serve. So my expectations weren't high. I was in it for the window-dressing (nobody can dress a window like Tim Burton, if you like the kind of window he dresses, which I do) and watching Johnny Depp chew the scenery, and that was it.
So I was pleasantly surprised to find that what Tim Burton had actually done was to write a movie analogous to one of those novels in which someone from our world is transported into a fantasy world they either made up or read about, only to discover that the reality is very different from what they imagined. Pamela Dean's The Secret Country books are prime examples of this trope, also Joy Chant's classic Red Moon and Black Mountain. I very much doubt that Burton has heard of these books, let alone read them, (or that it would have changed anything if he did--Burton is a Cat That Walks Alone if there ever was one), but still, there is a tradition of such things, and this movie is in it. Alice is Alice Kingsley, in this version, and the daughter of Charles Kingsley, who (in this version) was not a social reformer or the author of Water Babies, but a business man with visions of establishing a commercial empire. As a child, his daughter is troubled by nightly dreams of grinning cats, caterpillars, rabbits in waistcoats, and short-tempered queens. As a young woman, she is troubled on a more immediate level by her father's death and her mother's desire for her to marry a weak-chinned, humorless, titled git. When he proposes to her in a gazebo, watched by an entire garden-party full of High Victorians, she runs away and falls down a rabbit hole into the Underland she has (and has not) been dreaming of--and into a Chosen Hero Resists Her Destiny fantasy plot neither she nor the reviewers expected.
As Chosen Hero Resists Her Destiny plots go, this one is pretty straightforward, leaving plenty of room for harrowing dangers, hair's-breadth escapes, and daring rescues--and some very creepy set-pieces involving a Burtonesque forest laid waste by the Jabberwock, a moat filled with the severed heads of the Red Queen's victims, and a confrontation between chess pieces and playing cards, among others. I saw a number of short, but beautifully observed, visual hommages to Tenniel's illustrations, most notably the Hatter in prison and Alice talking to the caterpillar. I liked the toothy Bandersnatch, and was utterly charmed by the Cheshire Cat, voiced by Stephen Fry. I admired Helena Bonham Carter's spoiled-brat Red Queen, and found Johnny Depp's bipolar Hatter more appealing than the Guardian and New York Times reviewers did. Mia Wasikowska did not ring my chimes as Alice--she lacked, in the Hatter's words, "muchness," but she looked grand in her armor, and was in constant battle with a script that seemed to call upon her to be simultaneously passive and active, for no particular internal reason I could see. There was a little word-play (Tweedledum and Tweedledee's antiphonal speech was very well-rendered), but not remarkably, this movie is more about visual fireworks than verbal ones.
And it's in the aesthetics, I think, where the question of whether you like this Alice or not becomes absolutely a matter of individual taste. If you like twisty, dark, bleak ruined forests and slightly nightmarish gardens and colors that vary between the saturated and the greyed-out (not to mention make-up that almost inevitably includes reddish smudges around the eyes)--if you like Tim Burton's Mixture, in fact, you'll love it. I freely admit that Burton's aesthetic maps roughly over mine (although I tend more towards the pre-Raph than the high Gothic), so I was very happy. If you don't, or if you demand psychological verisimilitude in the characters, a plot line that makes strict logical sense, or any real resemblance to the source material, then you'll likely be less happy. In our group of 12, four loved it, Ellen and I liked it very well, two were polite, and one hated it a lot. The remaining three were at the other end of the table, and I don't know what they thought.
***1. And it's always bad to have your head explode.