There's a Method to Tim Burton's Madness

Tim Burton and Alice in Wonderland were made for each other. Tim Burton was born to make 3D, and Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland was born to go 3D.

Alice in Wonderland is the original portal story. To go through a portal means you have to go somewhere infinitely more magical than real life, to a place where your mind is blown. This Wonderland blows our mind and its three-dimensionality electrifies our senses in the way Oz did, back when something as simple as switching to color was breathtaking.

More recently, Avatar is the IT film for those seeking an immersive experience. Critics have gushed about Avatar's intoxicating visuals and its game-changing technology. In Avatar, (another portal film) 3D is not used simply for 3D's sake. It's integral.

Burton's psychotropic Alice is very much an Avatar for the elementary school set. With its gorgeous integration of animation and live action, Wonderland is permeated with lush, exotic vegetation, strange birds and far-out critters (a rocking-horse humming bird is one of countless fanciful flash details). Like Avatar's paraplegic Jake Scully, Alice, a young woman in Victorian society, is constrained by real life. Wonderland, like Pandora, is her escape hatch.

While this Wonderland has all the iconic characters -- the white rabbit, the dormouse, the Cheshire Cat, the story itself has been three-dimensionalized. Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel and the forgettable 1951 animated Disney film were a stringing together of episodic adventures without plot, character development or emotional depth. Alice 2010 is more satisfying.

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Burton's Alice blends Carroll's two books -- Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass -- and expands on the poem, "Jabberwocky" to give the story structure. But it's the three-dimensionalized Alice -- a fabulous performance by Mia Wasikowska -- that gives the film its greater substance.

Johnny Depp is more than superficially wacko as the Mad Hatter. He becomes Alice's friend, a scarecrow to her Dorothy. Beneath his dazzlingly bizarre garb, the Hatter has a skittish kindness. In a kingdom ruled by the impetuous, decapitation-happy Red Queen, The Hatter is literally scared out of his wits.

As the Red Queen, Helena Bonham Carter is a sheer delight. Her giant bulbous head is one of the film's best special effects. Like most everything here, the queen's big head is not just for show; it accentuates her monarchistic brattiness. Her absurd commands and predilections (like using live animals as furniture) would be creepy if they weren't so funny.

In Linda Woolverton's screenplay (she wrote screenplays for The Lion King and Beauty and the Beast), Alice has returned to Wonderland at the age of 19, having first visited at age 7. It's such a smart twist; At 19, the character isn't merely a precocious kid rescuing the Mad Hatter and battling the vicious Jabberwocky; at 19 she can consider her own childhood.

As it turns out, this place is actually called Underland -- at 7, Alice had mistakenly called it Wonderland. It's a tidbit that reflects so much about the perceptions of children and adults.

There are a million rites of passage action-adventure films where boys do battle, gain glory and come of age. Alice's growth cuts both ways. At first, the inhabitants of Wonderland are not convinced she is the right Alice. They've been waiting for the return of Alice to fulfill a prophecy, to do battle with the jabberwocky and to dethrone the evil Red Queen. But this Alice is reluctant; she is "hardly Alice." Recalling the 7 year old, the Mad Hatter tells Alice, "You were much more muchier. You've lost your muchness." Which is in fact, the heart-wrenching truth about growing up isn't it?

Tim Burton's multi-dimensional Alice in Wonderland is robust enough to entertain big and small, those who've drunk the potion and those who've eaten the cake. This is an Alice that fully realizes the story's true potential. It has much muchness.

Alice in Wonderland is now playing in several Bay Area theaters including the Castro Theater, where it plays through April 1, 2010.

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