Alice in Wonderland is the result of Disney inviting director Tim Burton, a certified specialist in cinematic lunacy, and author Lewis Carroll, the pioneer of literary nonsense, to the same tea party. In other words, it’s the closest you’ll get to absolute madness without being locked in a room with padded walls. But being bonkers isn’t so bad. As Alice’s father remarks, “all the best people are.”
As the first big family movie of 2010, Disney/Burton’s reimagining of Carroll’s classic tale is a wondrous piece of escapism, despite some narrative shortcomings. It’s more of a sequel than a remake, with Alice (Mia Wasikowska), now 20 years old, falling back down the rabbit hole for the second time.
Or so the White Rabbit, still running late as ever, seems to think. He’s convinced that she is the same Alice who visited years before, but as she recalls, it was only a vivid dream. He’s also having a hard time convincing his wacky companions, such as bulbous twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee (each voiced by Matt Lucas); a small but feisty Doormouse (Barbara Windsor); a cynical but wise caterpillar (Alan Rickman) and, of course, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), whose tea parties have been spoilt by the wicked Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her destructive rule over the kingdom.
Cherry picking concepts and characters from Carroll’s books, Linda Woolverton’s screenplay has plenty of peculiar wit to chortle at, in spite of a narrative that seems a tad undercooked. It doesn’t start that way; the framing story is both clever and amusing – Alice’s visit to Wonderland takes place during her own engagement party for a predetermined marriage she’s not exactly chuffed about – but before long, the plot starts to smell a lot like one of Disney’s previous ventures, The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. It doesn’t help that fate is the key component to Wolverton’s story, adding to the predictability of events given they’re foretold to us early on, causing the CGI heavy climactic battle to underwhelm when it does inevitably arrive.
But notwithstanding the ho-hum narrative, the delightful characters and dazzling setting is more than enough to make this a joyous trip to the cinema. Burton is a true visionary, who doesn’t just vividly create surreal settings, but proceeds to dance his way through them with childlike vitality. Decent (although not exceptional)3D effects provide the rabbit hole with more depth than ever before, with the creature designs and animations – from the devious Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) to the utterly lovable bass hound Bayard (Timothy Spall) — being particularly excellent. Comparisons to Avatar are to be expected, and indeed valid, as James Cameron has set a lofty benchmark for digital imagery. While Wonderland isn’t quite as lush or photorealistic as the moon of Pandora, it’s still beautiful place to visit with all its endearing eccentricity. In a way, it’s a bit like watching Avatar while high on opium.
Sitting somewhere between Saoirse Ronan of The Lovely Bones and Cate Blanchett in age and looks, pale Australian beauty Mia Wasikowska is perfectly cast as Alice, full of wide eyed wonder and compelling determination. Burton’s leading man Johnny Depp is up to his usual tricks, blending some of his most memorable personas to become the Mad Hatter. He bears the quirky disposition of Willy Wonka, with the tender insecurities of Edward Scissorhands and the occasional, near uncontrollable, burst of Jack Sparrow zing. Maybe it’s just me, but you just want to give him a big hug every time he appears on screen, even though there’s a good chance he’ll try and nibble on your ear if you do.
Rounding out the impressive cast, Little Britain’s Matt Lucas provides solid comic relief as the Tweedle twins, while Burton’s partner Helena Bonham Carter – barely recognisable behind her digitally enlarged head and marvellous make up – makes being evil look more much fun than it should. Perhaps it’s because the righteous alternative is made out to be so dull, the result of Anne Hathaway being both miscast and misdirected as the overly mannered White Queen.
This is a Disney film, so it’s obviously not one of Burton’s darkest moments, but there are still a few gloomy scenes — such as floating, decapitated heads being used as stepping stones — that could frighten youngsters. Otherwise, they’ll be having a ball. Adults, there’s plenty here for you too. Take, for instance, the Mad Hatters self-professed ability at the suspiciously suggestive “funderwhack” dance. There’s sure to be ladies everywhere queuing up to see Depp perform that in 3D.
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