Almost 150 years ago Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson published his wildly imaginative story about Alice’s adventures down a rabbit hole. And now the wildly imaginative director Tim Burton has brought Wonderland to the 3D movie screen. It is less faithful to the original story than many of the previous dozen or so movie versions, but I think Dodgson, better known by his pseudonym, Lewis Carroll, would approve of Burton’s bringing his own take to the classic characters.
He brings his own story as well. Carroll’s Alice is a little girl bored by her sister’s dull book, and her journey is episodic and filled with wordplay and references to Victorian society that fill the annotated edition of the book with witty footnotes.
To make the story more cinematic, Burton tells us that all of that has already happened in what young Alice thought was a dream. This is her return visit. Alice is 18 years old and has just been proposed to by a dull but wealthy lord with no chin and bad digestion. As she meets up with the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, and the Mad Hatter, she is not the only one who is confused. Characters seem puzzled and unsure about whether she is the real Alice. The Mad Hatter peers at her perplexedly. She may be Alice, and yet not quite completely the Alice they are looking for. “You were once muchier,” he tells her. “You’ve lost your muchiness.” In Burton’s version, Alice’s adventures are about her finding her “muchiness.” Her visit to Wonderland is a chance for her to understand what she is capable of and how much she will lose if she makes her decisions based on what people expect from her. As in the Carroll story, she is constantly changing size, and Burton shows us that she is really finding her place. She believes she is once again in a dream but increasingly learns that it is one she can control. By the time she faces the Jabberwock, she knows that she is in control — and that her courage and determination can create the opportunity she needs to follow her heart.
Johnny Depp brings a depth, even a poignance to the Mad Hatter, and Helena Bonham Carter is utterly delicious as the peppery red queen, hilariously furious over her stolen tarts. There’s a thrilling battle, the visuals are dazzling, with references to classic book illustrations by Maxfield Parrish, and the 3D effects will have you feeling as though you are falling down the rabbit hole yourself. The frame story bookending the Wonderland/Underland adventure is tedious and, oddly, less believable than the disappearing cat and frog footmen. But Burton’s re-interpretation of the classic story is filled with muchiness and the result is pretty darn frabjuous.