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Now that the glow of Avatar is fading, director Tim Burton steps up to the plate with another 3-D extravaganza: Alice in Wonderland. A comparison between the two films is unavoidable, not least because Alice earned $116 million in its opening weekend, handily beating the 3-D record of $77 million that Avatar set only months ago. But it's also due to the two films sharing the promise of transporting viewers to magical lands full of astonishing sights.
On this score, Burton's signature spookiness doesn't quite match up to James Cameron's sweeping neon, in part because we've seen this sort of thing from Burton before. While 3-D does give his effects a little more punch, the twisted trees, grotesque creatures, and sinister castles on display here are the same ones audiences saw in Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and other Burton films. They still look cool, just not surprising.
Where Burton's film, which imagines a teenage Alice returning to Wonderland, triumphs is in its humor and performances. Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Stephen Fry bring such infectious originality to their roles, they're impossible to resist.
Notoriously eccentric in his approach to creating characters, Depp seemed a perfect fit for the Mad Hatter, and he is. But while his Hatter is certainly mad, he is also much more. Depp gives a depth and sensitivity to the Hatter that while unexpected never feels contrived. So too does Fry display a world-weary cynicism that fits well with the Cheshire Cat's enigmatic nature. But the queen of this ball is Bonham Carter, playing giant-headed royalty. As the Red Queen, Bonham Carter brings such loopy hilarity to the role that she almost-though not quite-undercuts the sense of foreboding lurking behind every corner in Wonderland.
Lewis Carroll's classics Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass have always stood out from other children's works for their dark, disorienting undertones, and Burton doesn't shy away from these qualities. On her return, Alice still encounters creatures full of jagged teeth and monarchs eager for her head, and the caterpillar still blows smoke from his hookah into her pretty face. In addition to these customary menaces, the now 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) must also avoid the advances of the oily Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover).
It may all be a bit much for very young or sensitive children, so parents should heed the PG rating. However, many children will adore this movie as much or more than Disney's 1951 animated version not least because it presents a far more conventional narrative than is typical of Alice in Wonderland adaptations-one that fans of franchises like the Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter will find familiar and enjoyable.
This brings me to my only major gripe against Alice's adventure. Setting his movie up as a sequel of sorts to Carroll's stories, Burton frees himself from following the expected route. And with that freedom he could have wandered down the most inventive and unusual roads, and indeed, in the spirit of Carroll, should have. Instead he chooses what is perhaps the most generic path in all of filmdom for our golden-haired heroine.
It seems that whenever Hollywood wants to show women displaying strength, it does so with what are traditionally considered masculine qualities. There's not necessarily anything wrong with an Alice in armor brandishing a sword-except that it's a cruel waste of an Alice. Carroll's Alice is impulsive and curious to a fault. She's also highly philosophical and intelligent. Given a girl with such intriguing traits, Burton turns her into an amalgamation of King Arthur, Prince Caspian, and a thousand other male heroes in literature and film.
How much more interesting would it have been to have Alice battle for the salvation of Wonderland utilizing her unique characteristics? If Burton and other filmmakers want to empower girls, perhaps, just once, they might show them how characteristics other than physical strength and agility are valuable.