I didn't realize that this was a continued imagining of Carroll's story, rather than an adaptation of it. That came as a nice surprise, because the plot made more sense than I'd expected. Instead of isolated encounters with a host of disparate characters, a young adult Alice is aided by an assortment of Wonderland favorites on an Authurian quest to find the sword that will kill the Jabberwocky and free the land from the despotic Red Queen.
Before she falls down the rabbit hole, we learn that Alice is an unconventional young British woman, being pressured into a foppish marriage. Since childhood she has been a recurring nonsensical dream, full of talking animals and smiling cats. She wonders if it means she is mad. Her creative father confirms that she is, but assures her that all the best people are. Thirteen years later, her father has died and her mother and sister insist that she finally stop being so whimsical. Margaret, her older sister advises her to marry the Lord who is primed to propose to her, so as not to be a burden to their mother and because it is expected. It seems that Alice is the last to know about the pending nuptials. Ordered to the gazebo by her intended, he asks for her hand before a crowd of waiting socialites.
Alice's "real life" is almost as surreal as the dream to which she escapes, but it does give us a framework for identifying the people and symbols that confront her in Wonderland (the name she gave the place as a girl, which is now known as Underland in her adult fantasy).
Mia Wasikowska was not known to me prior to this movie, but she inhabits the character of Alice with a grace and command that seems effortless, easily holding her own with veterans Johnny Depp (The Mad Hatter) and Helena Bonham Carter (the Red Queen). Depp and Carter have played insane and quirky many times too often. Yet, their performances are not cliched. Depp brings an innocence to the Hatter that you would have expected to be lost after Edward Scissorhands.
Carter's quips establish that humor has its own logic, even when part of an incomprehensible plot. You'd think that a joke had to deviate from the norm to get a laugh, but when there is no norm, how does humor find its starting point? Well, it begins with the actor's intonation and delivery, the way he or she creates incongruency, simply by being serious in a wacky world -- or wacky in a serious one!
It's not the special effects, but the acting that holds the audience's attention, when the story (such as it is) would not.
While Carroll's books raised political questions, this movie doesn't give you much to think about. Will a young woman flout society and independently pursue her dreams? We know she will. In Wonderland an uncertain Alice runs to a gazebo, afraid she lacks the courage or inclination to slay the Jabberwocky holding the world hostage. We know that it represents the same gazebo where the insufferable Lord Hamish Ascot awaits Alice's answer to his marriage proposal. Even before Alice successfully lops off the Jabberwocki's head in her dreams, the answer to Hamish's proposal is obvious.
As she realizes that her tendency to imagine 6 impossible things before breakfast (as her father did) is a good trait, not a bad one, it dawns on Alice that what she is experiencing in Wonderland is a memory, not a dream. If she could only recall and retain the lessons she's learned during past visits to Wonderland, she'd never lose sight of her path. If she embraces her own madness and originality rather than balking at it, she will move forward. Then, rather than having the same dream over and over, maybe she'll envision new ones. Alice Through the Looking Glass here we come . . .
Alice wakes up, rejects Hamish, straightens out her family and decides to become an apprentice in her father's business, heading its expansion into new countries.
In the end, the film is not about story or substance, but style and execution. On that level, it succeeds.
Casual Comments: Goodness, the White Queen may have taken a vow not to hurt another living creature, but she sure had no qualms about letting everyone else maim and kill on her behalf.