***originally written 9 March 2010***
Confession time. I’ve never read any Lewis Carroll, and if I’ve seen any previous version of Alice In Wonderland in full then it was a very long time ago. However so many of it’s characters, storylines and phrases are part of the cultural zeitgeist, that, like The Wizard of Oz, it has grown into cultural legend. Alice, along with The Wizard of Oz, is the dreamland story of our collective subconscious, so enduring is it’s imagery. It’s also a perfect fit for Tim Burton, so much so that I can even forgive that YET AGAIN the man is devoting time to a remake and adaptation, something I find so frustrating from a director who clearly has a vivid imagination of his own that so rarely gets full reign.
The book is, of course, a beloved book, and so almost any adaptation is going to come under fire. Indeed some of the comments from those who disliked the film that I heard upon leaving were positively venomous. In the credits the film claims to be based on both Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, but from what I can tell it’s neither one, nor the other, nor a mixture of both. This is really Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland. He’s taken those characters and situations and used them as raw tools for his own story. This is a re-imagining, not a straight adaptation.
As previously mentioned, I haven’t read Lewis Carroll, and so I came to Alice with no particular expectations. Indeed, if I felt anything it was anxiety. Tim Burton hasn’t been on his A game for well over a decade now in my book, his films since Ed Wood either being fun-but-uneven (Mars Attacks!) or outright stinkers (Charlie & the Chocolate Factory). Did I have any reason to believe Alice would be different, especially considering the recent controversy over it’s rush-DVD release, yet another reminder of how much of a pervasive brand Burton has become (seriously, does any film in history have the same wealth of merchandise as The Nightmare Before Christmas)?
…I kinda liked it. For the most part, in fact, I thought it was good fun. Mia Wasikowska makes a fine Alice, doe-eyed and savvy, easy to sympathise with and, one suspects, a talented star in the making. She helps make the actually-quite-jarring move from the hum-drum world to the fantastical one down the rabbit-hole easier to swallow. And Burton wastes little time getting us there, quickly setting up Alice’s tendency toward escapism when confronted with difficult choices that will recur toward the end of her stay in ‘Wonderland’.
Once there, we are tussled and turned through a series of situations with these terrific and familiar characters with barely a moment to catch our breath. Matt Lucas’ appearances as Tweedledum and Tweedledee are kept mercifully short, Alan Rickman drolly voices a blue caterpillar named Absolom, and Stephen Fry’s Cheshire Cat is perhaps the film’s most lovable and slightly-sinister creation all roled into one. Expect to see Cheshire Cat rucksacks hanging from the backs of school children the world over by May.
Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, is, well, Johnny Depp doing ‘crazy’, looking like a cross between Madonna and Ken Dodd. He might be moving toward self-parody, but really, what else was he going to do with the role? Helena Bonham-Carter’s Red Queen, complete with a wonderfully oversized head, proved to be a lot more fun than I thought she would be, bringing comic timing to the part that pleasingly stayed the right side of the panto-villain line. And Nigella Lawson turns up as the White Queen. Or maybe it’s just Anne Hathaway.
We are bamboozled through all of this, and the pacing is excellent, as disorientating as a plunge into a mad dream should be, and were it not for some disappointments in the final act, this would be a real return to form for Burton. Unfortunately the story boils down to a deeply unoriginal and out-of-place good vs evil battle, where suddenly everyone has swords. It feels exceedingly out of place, and doesn’t even attempt to trump any of it’s counterparts in other films, leading to a ‘will this do?’ feeling. This is immediately followed by another jarring misstep as, what had been up until this late stage a timeless piece, has a modern-pop-culture-vibe thrust upon it with some goddawful music and a dash of unnecessary American sass. The 3D never feels particularly necessary, giving the film a cash-in feel. I imagine actually that it looks more striking in 2D where the full range of Burton’s colour pallete would be more defined.
It may also be worth noting for anyone planning on going with a young child, that though the film has been passed with a PG there is plenty of gruesome imagery. Fantasy horror it may be, but nonetheless severed heads, limbs and tongues pop-up (or out) frequently, and the film has a disturbing pre-occupation with eye-piercing. The little ones may find this all a little too scary.
Alice In Wonderland then is a mixed bag. but for my money there are less reasons to bemoan the film than you may have been led to believe. Burton is a Hollywood blockbuster filmmaker, and on those terms, this is his best work in quite some time.*
*I have yet to see Sweeney Todd