Director: Tim Burton
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Crispin Glover
Plot: Just as she wishes to escape an unwanted marriage proposal, Alice (Wasikowska) falls down a rabbit hole and into Wonderland.
Alice in Wonderland is a phenomenally tricky film to get right. It’s very core concept is born to wacky, wild and unpredictable. Almost as soon as you do something as mundane as try to capture it in a movie, it feels like you are constricting the very essence of Wonderland in a box it cannot thrive in. However, at the same time, there is just too much cult material to ignore. Lewis Carroll’s Adventures in Wonderland has inspired so many artists and films that it is just too tempting a story not to explore. Therefore, any movie that dips its toe in the risqué waters of Alice in Wonderland adaptations has both anticipation and trepidation to contend with.
Hiring Tim Burton to direct the movie is a good start. If nothing else, the visual side is sorted, which is arguably the most important part of a surreal topic like Alice in Wonderland. As with most Burton movies, there are plenty of moments where you are able to just stop and gape and the wonder of what you are seeing. Alice has to cross a moat by jumping on beheaded skulls. The Queen’s cards are playing cards with attitudes. A final battle is fought over a chessboard arena. Yes, aesthetically, very little is done wrong. Tim Burton has great fun bringing all of these wacky characters to life. Helena Bonham Carter is a show-stealer as a big-headed (literally and figuratively), spoilt brat, dressed to the nines in clothes she assumes are beautiful and made-up like a nine-year old who has just got her hands on her mother’s lipstick for the first time. Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is also a sight to see. Like most of Depp’s work, it will prove very marmite for most. You can probably start a pub debate on which parts of the performance Burton instructed and what parts Depp went with on his own intuition. Johnny Depp’s Hatter has a habit of breaking into schizophrenic rants in a Scottish accent, the kind of character beat the actor likely fell in love with and refused to drop, despite everyone’s desperate pleas that it was a bit too weird. But the character looks the part, dressed in a total bonkers outfit that feels like exactly the kind of sight a Burton/Carroll team-up would suggest. It’s not just the heavy hitters. For a long while, Burton’s movie is fuelled by a curiosity as to what the next iconic character will look like. The wonderful thing about Carroll’s works is that the wackiness of it all means that there is a lot of artistic licence to play with. As long as Burton doesn’t hold back, his adaptations of the characters here can be whatever he needs them to be. The Cheshire Cat is a wonderfully mischievous creation, hovering in the air lazily, a sinister grin on his face. Matt Lucas looks characteristically bizarre as both Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. And then there are simply the plethora of background parts, from the Queen’s unusual entourage to the creatures scuttling in the backdrop. This is a movie bustling with life and Burton’s eye has magically captured what Wonderland should be.
But, of course, it is the narrative where the seams begin to crumble. Any adaptation of Alice in Wonderland is faced with a choice. Embrace the chaos and risk creating a jumbled cacophony of mashed-together sketches. Or try to pile the madness into a coherent storyline, perhaps robbing the universe of its wonderful unpredictability. Burton goes with the latter, his Wonderland very odd and surprising, but also being shoe-horned by a plot at every turn. The desire to see Alice wander vacantly through this world, akin to the Disney take on the story, is sadly unfulfilled. The Queen of Hearts stands in as the villain with a world-destroying plot and it is Alice’s job to sort her out. Alice is another tricky decision that Burton has to make. Is Alice just as mad as her surroundings? Or is she the one sane thing in this story? Disney made Alice barmy too, but it made the film somewhat disjointed. Burton makes Wasikowska go for a mix of the two, meaning that the lead actress feels unsure in her direction. She is a puppet, rather than an actor diving into a role. The film pits her against a gruesome beast, making the set-pieces odd enough but again, far too structured. The film ends and you are still unsure whether this is just one text that is unfilmable.
Final Verdict: Burton’s Wonderland looks the part, but in fitting the madness into a coherent story, some of the magic is sadly lost in translation.