In Theaters: Alice in Wonderland
Two children's classics whose hallucinatory mixture of exhilaration and dread has perhaps been most compellingly evinced by a Jefferson Airplane song and a Tom Petty video, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass are tricky cinematic source material. The 1951 Disney animated feature never quite reached the canonical status of a Cinderella or Snow White; Lewis Carroll's iconoclastic heroine seemed to resist the plangent, embalming tones of such fare, despite having her own coterie of talking animals and fatalistic queens. What she didn't have was a prince, which curiously enough is the first thing Tim Burton, in his hybridic update, gives her. It's a conventional tweak that doesn't bode well for an adaptation of a tale as idiosyncratic as Alice, which requires descendants to inhabit its spirit of invention in an organic and yet equally singular way.
In fact, Alice's prince is no prince at all but a Lord, and one of distinctly unprincely countenance. Having vexed her mother with her lack of either stockings or a corset and sporting the prettiest of frowns, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is unconstrained and distinctly out of place at the garden gala they attend. Burton gives the gathering and its powdered guests an almost blown out, blindingly white quality that will contrast with the rich gloom of the underworld to come. When she realizes the party is an engagement ambush -- a nostrilly prig named Hamish (Leo Bill) has deigned to ask for her hand -- Alice, distracted throughout by visions of a white bunny cavorting through the grounds, leaves her suitor hanging and heads straight for the rabbit hole.
Alice's chatty observances have marked her in polite society as impertinent, and at 19 (combining elements of both Carroll stories, Burton has aged the heroine up) she is painfully in-between on a number of levels. It's a predicament highlighted in her first trial in Underland, where she trustingly drinks a potion that makes her 10 feet tall, then nibbles a cake that shrinks her down to a quill. Bodily fluctuations, personal sovereignty, and questions of identity figure prominently in what becomes a painfully explicit adventure in self-actualization. Screenwriter Linda Woolverton's (Beauty and the Beast) insistent narrative overlay organizes Carroll's unruly interplay of themes, symbols, semiotics, and subversive fiddle-faddle to the point of defeat. Every bit of havoc and nonesuch is put in service of the story of Alice's feminist awakening, and it's about as exciting as it sounds.
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