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I write this a few days of pondering after a proper theatrical viewing of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland film during the initial March 2009 release.  Thinking on it, I realize that I also come to this with as near to a blank slate on Alice as an even vaguely literate middle aged American now could.  I've never actually read the books, or even actually watched the simple earlier Disney animated version.  I'm previously vaguely familiar with the characters and that there was a real Alice, but this is the first actual Alice story I've seen.

Coming to it like this, I was fairly impressed.  Tim Burton was definitely the guy for this material, it turns out.  There are ways in which Burton almost always excels, making striking scenery and graphic elements.  Of course Tim Burton was born just for bringing to life such a famous fantasy world.  Even the purposely unappetizing Red Queen was utterly fascinating to look at. 

Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen

But I was more impressed with the story and character elements, where Burton has occasionally fallen short.  There is some depth to the characters, and a fair amount of darkness.  This doesn't seem like it would be appropriate to very young children - not that it's vulgar, but that it's not a cute kiddy movie.  This Mad Hatter made some sense as a real literary character, sick from the mercury poisoning that made someone "mad as a hatter" and also suffering from mad nightmares of the Red Queen's violence and fear.  He was witty, and had a little fun - but he was a sad and haunted character. 

The famous tea party here was not a cute and festive moment, but something that had been replayed constantly for years of waiting after young Alice had come and gone those years earlier.  It was so sad, dusty and hopeless like Sting's sisters drinking "Tea in the Sahara" or Delta Dawn setting the table day after day for the long disappeared lover.  Of course, the mood improves when Alice really does finally show up again.

Johnny Depp as Tim Burton's Mad Hatter

What I like in retrospect best of all was in fact the climax of the movie, which was absolutely telegraphed from near the beginning.  Eventually, cute tea parties and witticisms aside, young sweet Alice was absolutely no two ways about it going to have to pick up that big sword and chop of that Jabberwocky dragon's goddam head.  It's a symbolic realism that really gives grounding and emotional throw weight to all the fantasy elements:  It's fantastical, but she's not getting out of anything.  She has to deal with hard and unpleasant realities.  The evil Red Queen and her Jabberwocky have to be dealt with.  It's this that turns these characters from cartoons into real characters, and generates legitimately earned pathos for the characters.

I was intrigued by one specific and re-emphasized detail of this.  The evil Red Queen had to be overthrown so that her benevolent sister the White Queen could rule a happy Wonderland.  She would be the most powerful good character to directly challenge her mean sister, but it still fell that Alice had to do the required killing because the good White Queen could not kill.  The Jabberwocky absolutely, positively had to be killed - but the good ruler couldn't get her hands dirty.  The more I think on that, the curiouser and curiouser it seems.

I'll see how this stands up to multiple viewings, but on one good sitting this Alice in Wonderland looks really beautiful on the surface.  It has some legitimate pathos and depth of character.  Plus, there are a few little philosophical points to chew on later. 



Mia Wasikowska as Alice Kingsley





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