Alice in Wonderland
Director: Tim Burton
Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas
Despite the title, this isn’t an adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s classic Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but a sort of sequel, in which a 19 year-old Alice (Wasikowska) return to a Wonderland that she cannot remember. Which puts her in the same boat as the audience, as it plays like a sequel to a film that we haven’t seen. It’s an odd choice, especially as it’s uncomfortably close to Spielberg’s misfire Hook. But never mind the story – look at the design! Look at the effects! Look at the things that would be flying out of the screen if we could see it in 3D!
Alice runs away from a Victorian garden party and a marriage proposal from a toffee-nosed lord to follow the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) down the rabbit hole and into Tim Burton’s brain. All of the familiar characters are here, with Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter leading a voice cast of Brits including Stephen Fry (the Cheshire Cat), Alan Rickman (the Caterpillar), Barbara Windsor (the Dormouse – is Burton a secret EastEnders fan?) and Paul Whitehouse (the March Hare). The film also takes the regular liberty with Carroll’s work of importing the Red and White Queens (Bonham Carter and Hathaway) and Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Lucas) from Alice Through the Looking Glass, which doesn’t take place in Wonderland (or Underland, as it is called here for no good reason).
The film’s episodic nature comes from Carroll, but its new plot has Alice strapping on plate mail and taking up a vorpal sword to slay the Jabberwocky (voiced by Christopher Lee) whilst the red and white armies clash in battle. It’s a horrible storyline that is both at odds with Carroll’s celebration of the imagination, and clearly imposed by Disney out of fear that teenagers will be bored by any film that doesn’t have a battle scene. Well it bored me, especially as the sight of CGI figurines fighting has become fatally over-familiar.
The CGI is much better employed bringing Burton’s vision of Carroll’s world to life, and the film has a dreamlike sheen that adds to the suggestion that this is all in Alice’s mind. It should have gone the whole hog and made everything in Wonderland animated. There are some odd use of effects, such as grafting Crispin Glover’s head (as the Knave of Hearts) onto a CG body just to make him a bit taller, or the plasticky version of Matt Lucas’s face which makes the Tweedles disturbing rather than cute. But you’d want your money back if a Tim Burton film didn’t look good, and this looks good.
Unfortunately, I’ve also come to associate Tim Burton with soulless, shallow work, and this is no exception. It’s wacky without being funny (Bonham Carter aside). It’s fussy and charmless. Wasikowska is a dull and unresponsive Alice (she proved that she’s better than this in the marvellous TV series In Treatment). Worst of all, even though I don’t rate Burton as a director, his heart clearly isn’t in this, and Disney might have got a better result from hiring a journeyman director who might at least have given the film a bit of energy.
Disney’s meddling becomes blatant in a final scene in which Alice gains her freedom in the real world by setting off to China to open trade negotiations – a disgraceful sop to a country that Hollywood is trying to break into regardless of its human rights record. (Presumably China has forgiven Disney for bankrolling Martin Scorsese’s Dalai Lama biopic Kundun.) Perhaps we’ll see a sequel in which Alice is involved with the real consequence of England’s bullying attempts to forge trade links with China in the nineteenth century: the Opium Wars.