As mad as a . . .
Tim Burton’s reimagined Alice is colourful, if awfully familiar, fun, writes Donald Clarke
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.
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