Much of the early part of the film is ostensibly a retelling of the classic tale with rabbits and waistcoats and tiny doors in rooms with tables, upon which lie bottles with Drink Me labels, whose telescopic effects are seared into our collective consciousness; it is a well re-told tale and in the beginning is far more Disney than Burton.
It is only when Alice opens the tiny door and enters Wonderland proper that Burton shows his hand, with an orchard of charred trees straight out of the haunted woods of Sleepy Hollow and the colourful scenes shown in the trailer and posters are covered in shadows and into this Underland Alice steps and stumbles across the Wonderland regulars.
Matt Lucas’s Tweedledum and Tweedledee are Weebles come to life, and bicker in distinct Carrollian quarrells, the Dormouse, voiced by Barbara Windsor is a short, sharp distrusting presence and Michael Sheen’s White Rabbit is perfectly pitched and redolent of a nervous civil servant – in short, the British troupe are all well cast and their characters brought to the screen with great panache by Burton’s team of technical wizards.
Two other characters deserve a mention here, Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen with her outsized head is channeling Miranda Richardson’s Queenie from Blackadder II, and is great fun to see, though a little diluted through caricature, and modeling the behaviour of the irritant Queen on her two year old toddler is a nice touch from Bonham Carter. The CG work undertaken to make her head enlarged is a startlingly well done piece of work, sadly the same cannot be said of Crispin Glover who, as the Knave of Hearts, is undone by the patchy CG integration of his head on a fake, elongated body. It rarely works well and does distract from his scenes.
In the mercurial hands of Johnny Depp the Mad Hatter sweeps across his scenes, becoming a roman candle of personalities and oddities and adding a well needed charge to the proceedings, indeed his recounting of the scorching of Wonderland at the hands of the Red Queen is a very nice moment. While he may tip the scales for some, and claims of indulgence laid at the hands of Depp and his regular directing cohort, the beauty of Wonderland is the characters, who always orbit their own centre of logic and morality, and Depp’s Hatter is a well drawn wanderer of Wonderland and brings a sense of the ridiculous to the world.
Sadly the character of Alice, played with fervor by Defiance’s Mia Wasikowska, is relegated to a series of reactions based on the notion that she may or may not be the ‘real’ Alice who came to Wonderland all those years ago, and I couldn’t engage with her journey from put upon dreamer to Vorpal sword wielding Champion of Wonderland, donning a suit of armour to go off to attempt to slay the Jabberwocky at the end of the film. Wasikowska is a decent actress but isn’t given the opportunity to engage on an emotional level; she doesn’t have the confused curiosity or assertive nature of the Alice in Carroll’s books and as our avatar in Wonderland this role is crucial – otherwise it is only a dream.
The story which unfolds is something akin to a collection of Lewis Carroll’s greatest hits, with a nice Burtonesque twist to the Wonderland/Underland landscape, but it missed the charm and replaced it with a quirky, haunting facade through which the promise of a Tim Burton directed Alice in Wonderland story is occasionally glimpsed. Burton deals best with outsiders and the extremes of character and conflict, and in bringing a more mature Alice to Wonderland there was a chance to engage with the ultimate outsider, not only with a character rooted in society’s rigid structure traveling to a strange, unruly place but also in bringing an adult perspective to a world, familiar to us all since childhood. It is a chance which it never fully taken, and in the undying obedience to the plot of this film the characters play their parts and utter their catchphrases, never freeing themselves of the shackles which a passionate love for the source material engenders.
A word about the 3D. Unnecessary.
Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories are timeless and the team of Disney and Burton have created a film which is both respectful and evocative of the source but which never decides how to make best use of the talents involved. In the press conference Burton stated clearly that this is ‘a Disney film’ and no other studio has the cultural legacy this statement implies. Burton’s earlier films, and some of his later works, are noticeable Burtonesque, content to revel in the dark side of the world and it is the fusion of the two ‘house styles’ which undo the cohesion of the film. Too many legacies come into play here – Carroll’s complexities and Burton’s darkness compete with Disney’s fairy tale staples to arrive on the screen like the group of sycophants at the side of Bonham Carter’s Red Queen – their distortions and eccentricities are false and are present to comply with a strict sense of propriety.
I am a huge fan of Tim Burton and I’m pleased we had the chance to see his version of Alice, the ‘vacuum’ of shooting almost entirely on green screen may have resulted in a detatched feel permeating the film, but Burton’s designs of a dark Wonderland are beautiful and haunting. It is a curious mix of a few great performances with a smattering of exceptional touches, but as a whole it is devoid of the magic which is inherent in the stories and which the sterling cast and crew are more than capable.