As mad as a . . .

Tim Bur­ton’s reimag­ined Alice is colour­ful, if aw­fully fa­mil­iar, fun, writes Don­ald Clarke

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Cover Story -

YOU WILL, th­ese days, fre­quently find Lewis Car­roll’s Alice’s Ad­ven­tures in Won­der­land (and its se­quel, Through the Looking Glass) sit­ting be­tween Swords of Bas­tardium and Rune of the Orc Whis­perer in the fan­tasy sec­tion of your lo­cal book­shop. Yet the book has lit­tle to do with that genre. Part meta­phys­i­cal puz­zle, part sur­real fever dream, Alice in Won­der­land – the work of a Vic­to­rian math­e­ma­ti­cian, re­mem­ber – will not be found any­where on the Tolkien fam­ily tree.

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Never mind that. Fan­tasy is what sells to­day and, with that in mind, Tim Bur­ton has stripped the story down to its con­stituent parts and re­assem­bled it as a sword’n’sor­cery romp. There’s no rea­son Bur­ton shouldn’t at­tempt such an ex­er­cise. Af­ter all, Guy Ritchie re­cently turned Sher­lock Holmes as the two-fisted hero of a steam­punk pot­boiler. But you have to won­der why he didn’t just adapt a novel with a dragon on the cover in­stead.

None of which is to sug­gest that Bur­ton’s film is not fun. The cen­tral premise does, to be sure, ring a few omi­nous bells. Some years af­ter Alice Kings­ley (Mia Wasikowska) pays a visit to Won­der­land, she has grown into a slightly surly clone of Gwyneth Pal­trow. (Alice’s fa­ther, Charles Kings­ley, is surely named for the au­thor of The Wa­ter Ba­bies, pub­lished two years be­fore Won­der­land, but he does not seem to be the same char­ac­ter. Cu­ri­ouser and Cu­ri­ouser.)

Ea­ger to evade the at­ten­tions of a chin­less suitor at a gar­den party, Alice flees into the un­der­growth and falls down the rab­bit hole that leads to (some rebranding has gone on, here) the mag­i­cal Un­der­land. But she doesn’t re­mem­ber be­ing there as a child.

Hang on a mo­ment. The grown-up hero of a Vic­to­rian clas­sic re­turns to the site of ear­lier ad­ven­tures? Isn’t that the plot of Steven Spiel­berg’s no­to­ri­ously fright­ful Hook.

Alice in Won­der­land is, thank good­ness, much more di­gestible than Spiel­berg’s jerry-built mon­stros­ity. Bur­ton and his writ­ers have imag­ined the king­dom in a state of to­tal­i­tar­ian tur­moil. He­lena Bon­ham Carter’s Red Queen, an amal­gam of Mrs Thatcher and Quee­nie from Black Adder II, now rules the wasted ter­ri­tory with petu­lant fury. Fol­low­ing some jab­ber­ing round the tea-ta­ble, Alice finds com­mon cause with fa­mil­iar char­ac­ters and joins in a cam­paign against the red men­ace.

The pic­ture is, un­ques­tion­ably, full of good bits. As the Mad Hat­ter, Johnny Depp tweaks his Willy Wonka to cre­ate a some­what less ma­lign but even more de­mented cack­ling ma­niac. Bon­ham Carter is ab­so­lutely splen­did, and the choice of Matt Lu­cas and Matt Lu­cas as (more than usu­ally creepy) Twee­dle­dum and Twee­dledee proves quite in­spired.

What of the com­puter-gen­er­ated en­vi­ron­ment? Well, the colours are rich and the 3-D en­velop­ing, but a de­press­ing same­ness seems to have crept into our con­tem­po­rary imag­i­nary uni­verses. In 10 years, cin­ema watch­ers, con­sid­er­ing Avatar, The Lovely Bones and now Alice, may won­der if our dig­i­tal boffins were all whacked-up on the same prog-rock goof­balls. The pre­ci­sion of John Ten­niel’s orig­i­nal il­lus­tra­tions has been re­placed with a chocolate box gothic, which, though pretty, never looks like any­thing other than the work of com­put­ers.

The fa­mil­iar Tim Bur­ton Emo-sur­re­al­ism re­mains one of cin­ema’s durable plea­sures. Even while watch­ing his weaker films, you are aware that the au­teur has a sure no­tion of his de­sired tone and am­bi­ence. It’s just a shame that this film’s plot ends up seem­ing so dead­en­ingly fa­mil­iar.

Car­roll’s char­ac­ters slowly lose their sin­is­ter edge and form a lov­able gang (the Cheshire Cat is, dear God, re­ferred to as “Ches”) that goes to war against the White Witch and . . . no, hang on, that’s Nar­nia. If you see the film you’ll un­der­stand my er­ror.

Chan­nel­ing Mrs Thatcher: He­lena Bon­ham Carter as the despotic Red Queen

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