Throughout Disney’s new, 3D re-imagining of Alice In Wonderland, the odd girl with the blonde hair – now 19, finding herself back in Wonderland to escape the stuffiness of Victorian society – is asked her name by bizarre characters and CGI creations. Their response is uniform: ‘The Alice?’ croons the Cheshire Cat, voiced by a most decadent, flirtatious Stephen Fry. However, there seems to be a more puzzling question, concerning the film’s director: is this the Tim Burton?
No, this must be a different Tim Burton. Sure, there are freaks and kooks – is there an intellectual property more bursting with them? – but while they are twisted to fit a suitably dark take on Wonderland, the narrative is derivative and wafer-thin, with what intriguing ideas that Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton bring to the table being trimmed into non-existence by a vacuum-sealed structure.
It is also awkwardly conceived. It is a valid idea to inject Carroll’s Alice books, which were always more about cheeky exercises in absurdity and logic than rounded storytelling, with emotional anchors and a workable narrative through line. However, in practice, the film starts to lose both its humour and its distinctiveness; before long, we are treated to Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, gap-toothed and Bowie-eyed, walking among scorched trees as he intones his way through the sublime nonsense-poem Jabberwocky with utter, Scottish-accented sincerity.
So, Burton has brought a lot of darkness to Wonderland, but this isn’t the grotesque drama-comedy seen in his late 80s and early 90s output (Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns). Instead, Alice In Wonderland is an overwrought fantasy epic, squaring off against Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings as opposed to carving out its own quirky corner of the imagination.
Alice (Mia Wasikowska) returns to the world of talking creatures and tea parties, and finds it under the tyrannical rule of The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). In order to restore Wonderland to its former glory, the girl must obtain the Vorpal Sword and slay the evil Jabberwocky (voiced by Sir Christopher Lee), in the process reinstating to the role of monarch The White Queen (Anne Hathaway).
Along the way, Alice reunites with the world’s most famous residents, who are skewered between the epic adventure storytelling and Burton’s desire for grim, psychological baggage. Bonham Carter is a brilliant scene-stealer as The Red Queen, who strops with toddler-like arrogance and emotional immaturity, but Depp’s red-topped Mad Hatter is a less convincing creation. Hints of schizophrenia and trauma are eventually pushed aside in favour of crazy affectations, inexplicable accents and an embarrassing CGI-assisted dance-off.
Likewise, Alice’s central journey of self-discovery, represented by the frame narrative of societal pressures on young women, is a bit trite, with the under-developed ending suffering in the breathless race for the credits.
To be sure, this is a squandered opportunity. The visuals are good, with flashes of Burton’s obsession with high contrast purples, crooked trees and looping branches, but are dampened by the context. The Red Queen’s nightmarish castle is a ruby blot on Mordor’s landscape, and The White Queen floats through her fairytale castle like an expat from Rivendell.
However, once you overcome the jarring shift from surreal to mild-peril action, and forgive the film for barely using its stellar supporting voice cast (Alan Rickman’s Caterpillar and Barbara Windsor’s Dormouse are superb), it shows that Burton has vastly improved as a mainstream director over the years.
A prime example of this, and potentially the film’s most enduring image, is its final showdown, an epic battle on a post-apocalyptic chessboard. Coming from a filmmaker whose Batman action scenes shuffled awkwardly, and whose Planet Of The Apes was dreadful, this at least shows some progress.
But at what cost? Perhaps Alice In Wonderland‘s greatest failing is that it isn’t odd at all. It’s certainly not that surreal, and it is hard to imagine it improving with dropped acid.
No, this is a shallow, stunted spectacle that does surprisingly little with its rich source. Instead, it is Tim Burton’s successful stab at inoffensive, unchallenging children’s entertainment – an adventure blockbuster through and through. Sadly, out of his varied and eclectic career, it is also his most creatively moribund.