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Originally published March 4, 2010 at 12:15 AM | Page modified March 5, 2010 at 10:17 AM

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Movie review

'Alice in Wonderland': A trippy trip down the rabbit hole

Tim Burton's take on Lewis Carroll's "Alice in Wonderland" is bursting with color and imagination, writes Seattle Times critic Moira Macdonald in a review of the movie.

Seattle Times movie critic

Movie review 3.5 stars

'Alice in Wonderland,' with Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas. Directed by Tim Burton, from a screenplay by Linda Woolverton, based on "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass" by Lewis Carroll. 109 minutes. Rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar. Several theaters, in 2D, 3D and 3D/ IMAX.

MOVIE REVIEW 3.5 stars

Down in Underland (formerly called Wonderland, for reasons made clear in the movie), bulbous-headed queens shriek, frogs in tailcoats stand at alert, croquet is played with flamingos for mallets and the crescent moon morphs into a Cheshire-cat grin. Like the land of Oz, it's an interesting place to visit — though you wouldn't want to live there — and a perfectly delectable place to watch. (And it is, quite certainly, the only movie to ever receive a PG rating partially for, in the ratings board's words, "a smoking caterpillar.")

Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," bursting at its seams with color and imagination and "Off with her head!"s, zooms along like a rabbit in a garden, letting us breathlessly chase it. Wittily written by Linda Woolverton ("Beauty and the Beast"), it's not a literal reinterpretation of Lewis Carroll's books but rather takes their playful yet dark spirit and dances with it. Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is here 19 and on the verge of marriage to an upper-class twit, and she's not a sometimes passive Victorian child but a refreshingly purposeful heroine. (My 10-year-old niece, joining me for the screening, agreed with me: How nice, among the current kid-movie throng of Harry Potters and Percy Jacksons, to see a girl not as a sidekick but as the one who saves the day.)

In this version, Alice wanders away from a horrifically proper garden party in pursuit of a rabbit — and down that famous, swirling hole she tumbles, like she's fallen into a kaleidoscope. Once arrived in Underland (and transformed in size, via "Eat Me" and "Drink Me"), she meets friends and foes, and eventually is enlisted to battle the Jabberwocky and bring freedom to the put-upon kingdom. Not all of this is from Carroll, but much is spot on: the tea party, complete with "Twinkle, twinkle, little bat"; that hookah-smoking caterpillar; those unfortunate flamingos; the "grin without a cat."

Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen — her head swollen thanks to CGI magic — looks like she's lifted from a demented deck of cards and sounds like she's channeling Joan Collins in "Dynasty"; she shrieks and purrs and devours lines like "Anyone with a head that large is welcome in my court" like they're caviar. Johnny Depp brings a touch of wistfulness to the Mad Hatter, whose voice is at times Scottish-on-helium and at times a guttural growl; somehow, from beneath his orange fright wig and madman makeup, something gentle yet broken emerges. Anne Hathaway, fluttering her fingers fetchingly, makes the otherwise ethereal White Queen just a bit mysterious. And Wasikowska has a lovely, determined stillness; she's a heroine unafraid to take time to think, and to ask. (Though even she doesn't know why a raven is like a writing desk.)

The 3D effects are subtle rather than overpowering — in the prologue, everything looks like a faded Victorian diorama — and while "Alice" is no doubt gorgeous in IMAX (I saw it in 3D, non-IMAX), you won't be missing much if you catch it in regular 2D. This film's joy is in its wit, its casting, its visual imagination and attention to detail (note the Red Queen's little red sunglasses, or Underland's rainbow of toadstools, or those natty tailcoats on the frogs). Though it has a few moments where you can see Burton's imagination giving way to Disney convention, along with a bit of trademark Burton darkness, the pleasures of "Alice" are virtually always unexpected. You never know where a rabbit hole might lead you — or what a smart, thoughtful girl can accomplish.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

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