ALICE IN WONDERLAND Review
When Tim Burton took on Disney's new big screen adaptation of ALICE IN WONDERLAND most people saw it as the natural ascension of an artist whose career and visual aesthetic has been so clearly influenced by the writings of Lewis Carroll and illustrations of John Tenniel. Burton declared that he wanted to create a new story for his film that was more than simply "a girl wandering around from one crazy character to another", something that engaged an audience emotionally. If by that he meant that he wanted to spark anger, derision and mild nausea from viewers then he should be very happy with how the film has turned out.
Using a plot device that has been applied to disastrous effect in the past, by Spielberg in HOOK and Walter Murch in RETURN TO OZ, Burton's film, from a script by Linda Woolverton, begins thirteen years after the events in Carroll's books. Alice is 19 and about to be married off to a moronic young fellow of good stock. Her father's recent death means his partner has bought out his share of a shipping company, leaving the Kingsleys in need of financial support. Just as she is about to respond to her suitor's marriage proposal, Alice spies the White Rabbit, tapping his watch and beckoning her to follow him. This she does, only to find herself again tumbling down the rabbit hole and into Wonderland.
Thus begins a series of familiar, yet vaguely reworked scenes from Carroll's novels - including size-altering food and beverages, the croquet game and numerous, largely episodic and inconsequential encounters with characters including the Caterpillar, Cheshire Cat and Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter. Alice has been plagued by dreams of this place since childhood, yet insists it is all unfamiliar to her. This sentiment is mirrored by the locals failing to recognise this young lady to be the girl they all know (a feeling shared, incidentally, by the audience - but more on that later). Only the Hatter is convinced of who Alice is and whisks her off to see the White Queen, where fate foretells she must face the terrifying Jabberwocky. This monstrous dragon has been enslaved by the Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter) and used as muscle to conquer all of Wonderland, which is now a ghostly, desolate place, permanently enshrouded by ominous clouds.
While it must be conceded that Burton, Woolverton et al have managed to twist and contort familiar characters and situations into something resembling an actual story, the overwhelming feeling is one of sorrow and pity at witnessing such ghastly manipulation akin to watching trained bears perform at the Russian circus. The film's design attempts to recapture the spirit of Tenniel's authoritative sketches, but while the characters are instantly recognisable, their behaviour is all too often jarringly unnatural and the heavily CG-influenced scenery remains flat and lifeless despite the behind-the-scenes tinkering to convert it to 3D and the almost offensively lurid colour schemes.
Mia Wasikowska is dull and unengaging as Alice, never inspiring us to care about her, while her age alienates us in much the same way Robin Williams was never believable as Peter Pan. As in THROUGH THE LOOKING GLASS, her role is but that of a pawn in a much larger game, an excuse more than anything to get Johnny Depp dressed up as a bug-eyed Leprechaun for his next mad-capped assault on the global box office. What's depressing is how predictable and unadventurous his interpretation of the Mad Hatter is, playing him as little more than Willy Wonka in creepy contact lenses. He is rarely funny or likeable and the script is shamelessly skewed to give him as much screentime as possible, in a role that remains as superfluous as it always has been. Much the same can be said of Helena Bonham-Carter, whose stroppy, lisping Red Queen is shockingly one-dimensional (not to mention the design of her character is actually that of the Queen of Hearts - an all-too-often amalgamation of two very different characters).
Anne Hathaway does better as the White Queen, playing her with an amusing ethereal klutziness that smartly juxtaposes Bonham-Carter's one-note pantomime act. Matt Lucas is also rather good as both Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Other characters fair less well - Cripin Glover in particular seems to be struggling to even walk properly in whatever jerry-rigged motion capture suit he was strapped into. The largely British voice cast (Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall) seem at ease with Carroll's beautiful nonsense verse, again highlighting its lamentable fate, all but buried under technical smoke and mirrors that distracts and irritates, rather than dazzles and delights.
As the film progresses it seems to actually get worse and the final reel descends to the almost jaw-droppingly awful spectacle of the Mad Hatter performing an electro-beat, breakdancing jig, complete with EXORCIST-style headspinning that is as appallingly out of place as it is just plain appalling. Matters compund moments later when, on her return to the Real World, Alice breaks into the very same abominable two-step, before striding off to inflict one last bewildering act in the film's frankly illogical epilogue.
It is almost impressive to see just how badly Burton - and it should be said, Disney - have befouled these universally-loved properties. The film constantly begs the question why didn't they simply retell Alice's classic adventures, rather than trample them into this ugly, pointless mess. One character notably absent is Humpty Dumpty, but as the credits roll it is blissfully apparent that the film itself represents literature's clumsiest egg man and no number of King's Horses or King's Men could possibly put this scrambled mess together again.