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Mia Wasikowska is Alice in the Tim Burton film Alice in Wonderland.

©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

3 out of 4 stars


Alice in Wonderland

  • Directed by Tim Burton
  • Written by Linda Woolverton
  • Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham-Carter
  • Classification: PG

It does get curiouser and curiouser. Despite all the computer-generated wizardry and the 3-D gadgetry and Tim Burton flashing his directorial magic and Johnny Depp acting mad as a hatter, the most transfixing part of Alice in Wonderland is Alice - more specifically, Alice's very human face, such an old soul of a young face, almost beautiful, rather grave, wide-eyed and insistent on owning the bittersweet fruits of her lively imagination. "This is my dream," she cries out more than once - and indeed it is.

The face belongs to Mia Wasikowska. The fortunate may remember her from the HBO series In Treatment, where, portraying a troubled teenager, she burned a hole right through the small screen - one look was enough to know you were in the presence of a major talent. Here, thanks to Linda Woolverton's reworking of the Lewis Carroll books, Wasikowska is a teen again. This is an older Alice, 19 now, poised to return to the half-remembered "Underland" of her youth, although not before appearing as the star attraction at a Victorian engagement party. There, proposed to by dishwater-dull Hamish, she does the only sane thing - flees down the rabbit hole with her furry, frocked companion. The familiar journey begins.

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And the familiar figures dutifully make their appearance. Of course, before they do, Alice feeds her head in Wonderland's barren anteroom - a sip makes her small, a morsel grows her tall - and, here, Burton does a superb job playing with the perspective. It's a simple yet beguiling scene. Everything that follows is a lot more complicated, but not quite as beguiling. Although each individual component is fine - the Cheshire Cat grins his floating grin, the Jabberwocky jabbers up a dark storm, the Tweedles do their dumming and deeing - the addition feels slightly off, and, in the end, the overall picture seems less than the sum of its parts.

So, yes, it is curious to enjoy these parts separately while still experiencing a collective letdown. For example, Depp's Mad Hatter is fun, with his clothes like a mood-ring changing colours to match his mercurial temper, and with Depp switching accents accordingly - here a gap-toothed English lisp, there a thick Scottish burr.

Amusing too is Helena Bonham Carter's evil Red Queen, all bulbous-headed and acid-tongued and so salaciously delicious when she coos over those humpty-dumpty Tweedles: "I looove my fat boys." Balancing her on the moral scales is the sisterly White Queen, but Anne Hathaway makes sure we can detect a sibling resemblance, playing her with a regal air that borders on the haughty. That's nicely in keeping with Carroll's topsy-turvy world, where nothing, not even goodness, is quite what it seems.

Less faithful is the effort to tilt the narrative toward an action climax, which only serves to make Wonderland's oddities look more conventional, even anticlimactic. A bit of tedium sets in at this point, not least with the vaunted 3-D enhancements that have stopped enhancing and started distracting. Burton himself appears bored with this tool in his box, content to resort to that tired in-your-face gimmickry - hey, duck that pointy stick, dodge that flapping butterfly.

Instead, the true three-dimensionality here is the old-fashioned kind - Wasikowska's fully rounded performance. Throughout the technical razzle-dazzle, we keep returning to the pallor of that face, the gravity in those eyes. She's the ballast in all this free-floating imagination, giving the picture weight and ambiguity too - the near-woman in retreat from the impending world of Hamishes back to childhood's fragile fancies. I wish the script's last frames had taken advantage of that ambiguity, but they don't, tacking on a resolution that unwisely brightens up Wasikowska's darker and delicate shadings.

No matter. This is still her picture. She's its 10-foot tower, mysterious and brave and excited and withdrawn. Alice is the true magic in a Wonderland that's mere movie magic - the happy surprise amidst everything we've come to expect.

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