You know that moment you’ve been waiting your whole life for, the moment when someone you respect and admire tackles a subject that’s very close to your heart, as if reaching into your dreams and making them real? For me Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland should have been it. This was the magical joining of my favourite childhood book with one of my all-time favourite directors. There have been 16 previous film adaptations of Alice and none of them have gotten it quite right. Disney came closest with their 1951 animated version but that lacked the whimsy of the book, replacing it instead with surrealism and thus squandering its true potential. Yet they too, the fabled House of Mouse, were onboard for this wondrous journey too, what could possibly stop this from being my favourite movie of all-time?
Spiritually aimed at being a sequel to the Disney classic, this version of Alice in Wonderland takes place some years after the events of the book and sees Alice, now 19, on the verge of full-blown adulthood. With her doting father sadly deceased she finds herself in a situation not of her own making, bound by fate and circumstance to be engaged to a snivelling wretch named Hamish. When the appearance of a white rabbit in a waistcoat offers her a chance for escape she hurtles head-first down the rabbit-hole and back to Wonderland. Wonderland however is a changed place, darker and more sinister than before, for the Red Queen has seized control replacing merriment and dancing with torture and terror. Alice soon finds herself questioned, doubted and proclaimed as the saviour of Wonderland, the one who can slay the Jabberwocky and free the kingdom.
All the familiar faces are in place from the Mad Hatter, to the March Hare and the Cheshire Cat. Steven Fry does a delightful line as the voice of the Cheshire Cat, easily one of the most beguiling creatures on stage or screen. Barbara Windsor as the Dormouse gives a great line in high-pitched anxiety and squealing and a cast of other British cinema luminaries fill the cast to good effect. Stand-out amongst these is Alan Rickman as the ever cool, slightly louche Caterpillar, the hookah-pipe smoking, wisdom dispensing intellectual of the group. Of the human characters Johnny Depp is good as the Mad Hatter, but his portrayal offers more of a schizophrenic nature to the Hatter than any true madness. It’s a shame that he never stretches himself and tries to bring anything knew to a character he should fit so well. Helena Bonham Carter is suitably daffy as head-chopping, rotten egg that is the Red Queen, her over-the-top acting suiting the big-bonced one to a tee. Crispin Glover’s Knave is a disappointment the CGI effects budget seem to have run-out before getting to him making his every moment a jarring, unsettling experience. Mia Wasikowska plays Alice with the necessary naivety and innocence but manages to be overshadowed by almost every other character, particularly Anne Hathaway’s White Queen, who is elusive, beautiful and mythical while still maintaining an air of underlying malice and deceit.
The flaws with Alice in Wonderland lie not with the actors but rather with the story, direction and visuals. For a start the 3D is completely unnecessary, Burton the visual artist can paint better in 2D than almost all of his peers, so why the added dimension? Besides that there are numerous problems with the interaction between the real and CG characters, none more so than the Knave. There is one particular instance right near the start that has him on horseback and there is a visible cut and jaggedness between the horse and background. That shouldn’t happen in a hundred million dollar movie. Touches of Burton abound in the look and feel of Wonderland but these always appear watered down, tempered, like Disney had final say on almost all aspects of production and Burton gave in. Burton left them once before because he couldn’t do things his way but it seems age has mellowed him. The coming of age, understanding one’s place in the world and facing responsibility themes are all ones that Burton has challenged before to great applause. Big Fish is probably the best example of this and with the fantastical elements there and here it is the closest thematically. It’s a shame then that Linda Woolverton’s script is so lacking in any real character arcs or moral struggles with which Burton could work with. The third act is a rushed mess that serves only to set-up the face-off between the two opposing queens and their champions. It appears that devoid of Carroll’s literary inspiration Woolverton didn’t know how to properly end the movie and thus resorted to the familiar old final confrontation angle. It’s a pity then that it just seems so much like Lord-of-the-Rings-lite.
I know that I expected too much from the movie but I was crushingly disappointed by the final product. Sure its a fine diversion for 2 hours but I can’t help wondering what Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland would have been like.