There are two rules to most things in life. Good things come to those who wait, and it’s not what you know it’s who you know. Both of these fit perfectly into my early reviewing of Tim Burton’s latest money-spinner, his take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland. Thanks to a connection in cinema, who shall forever remain nameless and something of a mythical hero to my world, and being able to wait for a couple of days rather than bothering them every ten minutes with calls and texts, I managed to get an advanced screening of what is surely one of Burton’s most anticipated films ever.
Many people are probably most coherent to the world of Wonderland through the previous Disney effort, 1951’s cartoon feature, which combined elements of Carroll’s original Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass to come up with a child friendly mishmash that became one of the best known adaptations.
One of the great failings of Alice adaptations of the past has fallen squarely on the fact that technology just could not compete with the vivid, extraordinary and downright nonsensical imagination of Lewis Carroll. So it has to be said that although everything Tim Burton touches does turn to box office gold, now that the technology is there his job to create the ultimate Alice adaptation could have been astronomical.
So how do you avoid trouncing a beloved tale by turning into a semi-gothic creation? Simple, you create a sequel that takes the original characters and throws them down in a semi-gothic world that used to be a bright and shining Wonderland.
Taking a strong line from a 90’s PC game, simply called Alice, in which our young heroine had grown up and found herself back in a Wonderland gone bad, Burton’s gothic styles and frequent leaning towards the surrealistic have never been better suited than inside the twisted world that Wonderland is now seen as.
The story opens with Alice finding herself on the end of an unexpected and unwanted marriage proposal, which leads to her running away and upon following a familiar white rabbit finds herself toppling down an equally recognisable rabbit hole into a world she has long forgotten as a flight of fantasy.
Only this is not the Wonderland of a child’s imagination. Since leaving Wonderland, Alice discovers that it has fallen under the power of the Red Queen (Off With Her Head, anyone?) and become somewhat decrepit, dark and dangerous. This sets up Burton perfectly to create a distinct and memorable vision of Wonderland, which although not as dark as some of his settings is certainly a long way from Disney cute. That said, some of the classic Disney creations such as the once singing Flowers are clearly updated straight from the 1951 cartoon, so perhaps this is a new type of Burton who is playing around with the style he is famous for.
Back to story, and after a “Drink Me” scene which allows Alice to enter a small door, she finally finds herself reacquainted with the Mad Hatter and March Hair, the Cheshire Cat, the Tweedles as well as coming face to face with the Jabberwock and Bandersnatch which never saw light of day in the previous Disney telling. On top of that you have the megalomaniacal Red Queen, with her super large head, the beautiful White Queen who stands as her direct opposite, and a battle only just short of Lord of The Rings standard to keep the movie bouncing along at speed.
The cast, which as with most recent Burton movies is primarily made up of the greatest of British talent, find their place in each character with only the odd exception. Stephen Fry exudes smarmy sarcasm as the Cheshire Cat. Paul Whitehouse provides an angry Scottish tone to the March Hare, while Alan Rickman brings his droll tone in an oh-so-few lines as the Caterpillar. Helena Bonham Carter’s face finds itself super imposed onto the larger than life Red Queen’s bulbous bounce and pulls off the little dictator with ease. Then we come to Johnny Depp’s Hatter, who it has to be said has quite a few flecks of Willy Wonka still hanging around, but ultimately plays a deranged and over the top character in a way that only he can pull off.
A mention also has to go out to Mia Wasikowska who takes on the role of Alice as her first big acting role, and going up against so many crazy, outlandish and screen-hogging characters, it would be easy to think that plain and simple Alice may just slip into the background a little, but the Aussie actress pulls off the unthinkable by keeping the character right at the front of most of the action. That includes the battle scene which sees Alice going to war dressed almost like a Gondor ranger.
The digital manipulation of the scenery and characters is as good as it’s ever been with the usual quibbles like sometimes there seems to be too much going to too fast and away from the CGI Wonderland the White Rabbit doesn’t quite blend into the real world with complete believability. These are minor down points though and generally apply to any film that incorporates CGI images, so certainly not a reason to avoid the film.
Anyone who has loved Burton’s recent movies will be in their element here with his twisted sense of the surreal which could actually make him a direct descendant of Carroll himself. Fans of Depp will no doubt be pleased with his screen dominance here and forgive him for incorporating so much of his Wonka to the Hatter. And while there will surely be Carroll protectors, and possibly a few “real world” reviewers who will tear strips of the film for its brashness and reliance on CGI (similar to the treatment of Transformers 2), but in the end that will not stop this being one of the films of the year.