Tim Burton’s journey down the rabbit hole sews together pages from Lewis Carroll’s two Alice books, including his epic poem Jabberwocky. That’s a lot of Carroll for one movie, yet somehow the author’s spirit is elusive in this rocky update.
‘Update’ being the operative word: dodging a corset and snooty suitor in the tedious intro, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now a 19-year-old runaway bride who grapples with her own bodily changes and ill-fitting clothes before donning a suit of armour and battling a dragon.
Slyly renaming Wonderland as “Underland”, veteran Disney scripter Linda Woolverton (The Lion King, Beauty And The Beast) has tried to spin Carroll’s tales into a metaphor world of womanhood. Nice idea, except Burton doesn’t seem all that interested in it. Underland’s freaky inhabitants certainly think she’s “the wrong Alice”. And indeed, everything is here, but nothing quite fits.
The Brit all-star support gallery is perfectly cast, with Stephen Fry’s unnerving Cheshire Cat and Timothy Spall’s Bloodhound out-freaking Matt Lucas’ Tweedle-Dum/Dee, Alan Rickman’s Blue Caterpillar and Christopher Lee’s Jabberwocky. But as this awkward reunion tumbles forward, they have little to do except chatter inanely about whether Alice has “lost her muchness” since her last visit. Curiouser and curiouser, it’s Burton’s film that seems to be missing something.
Like the underwhelming Clash Of The Titans, Alice In Wonderland was shot in 2D then stereoscoped in post-production for an ‘Eat Me’-style box-office boost. As a cinematic event that went through the looking-glass, it didn’t even attempt to reach out and touch James Cameron’s Avatar. In fact, small-screen shrinkage reveals just how oddly flat it is. Why?
Alice’s dreamworld isn’t convincing because it isn’t really anchored in her psyche or Burton’s. Pimped out like a poisoned dandy (green mega-eyes, an orange shock-wig and indulgent riffle of accents), Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter feels much like Burton’s movie: entertaining, but all over the place. Both of them have done this kind of thing so many times – this is their seventh collaboration – it’s starting to verge on self-parody.
Luckily, this tale of girl power gone mad finally takes some shape when Alice is sucked into a battle of two sisters: Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen (barbaric, bobble-headed) and Anne Hathaway’s White Queen (whose deathly skin and black lipstick make her seem almost as frightening).
Channelling Miranda Richardson’s petulant Elizabeth I in Blackadder II, Bonham Carter almost storms away with the entire film. Unlike Depp’s Hatter, her über-bitch is a uniquely freaky creation that lodges in your mind – she’s witty, perverse and hugely funny, whether demanding decapitations (“How would you like your head hacked off?”) or fresh squealers (“I love a warm pig belly for my aching feet”). Her bulbous head, Depp’s saucer eyes and Crispin Glover’s spidery limbs are some of the scarce touches that sync with Burton’s true inner-oddball – he’s been sketching characters this way since his teens. But as soon as Bonham Carter stomps off screen, Alice is left with its garish surfaces and empty quirks.
Surrounded by the busy nightmarenothings, there’s little Wasikowska can do to add a sense of wonder (sorry, under). By the time a shonky CG battle climax and Avril Lavigne’s ear-stabbing theme song arrive, her director simply seems to be cranking the handle and waiting for the credits. It’s not a bad film, just a frustratingly impersonal one. How long has it been now since a Burton film carried a beating heart in its gaudily smocked chest?
As if to prod home the point, the disc reeks of rush release. First up on a meagre trio of featurettes comes The Mad Hatter, five minutes allowing Johnny Depp to discuss how his interpretation was based on the mercury poisoning that would send hat makers round the bend in the 19th Century. Worth a look, if only for the cool watercolour sketches by Depp, who proves himself a way better artist than Burton.
Finding Alice is – gasp – six minutes long, roping in Depp, Burton, Bonham Carter, Wasikowska and Hathaway to skitter over the making of the movie. It’s impossible not to feel short changed, especially when there are some tantalising behind-the-scenes glimpses of Alice hanging off giant green hats and being yanked into the air on harnesses. It’s over before it’s begun, though, leaving just six more Making Of minutes in the shape of Effecting Wonderland.
Peering into the movie’s combo of live-action, CG and hybrid mo-capped characters, it does at least give some sense of just how disorientating an environment it must have been to work in. “The greenscreen vibe is not a very friendly vibe, so you have to it keep moving,” admits Burton.
As Crispin Glover teeters on green stilts and tech-nerds hurriedly reveal how Matt Lucas gave his double performance, it’s all interesting and all way too brief. Did someone say double-dipper?
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