Movies: Alice in Wonderland * * * *
By my reckoning, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is at least the 20th attempt to adapt Lewis Carroll's inspired children's story for film and, on the face of it, an author and a film-maker have never been more well met.
Since his earliest days in animation and film-making, Burton has had a fondness for the gothic and darkly whimsical, which chimes perfectly with Carroll's dreamlike, nonsensical stories.
Burton hijacked an existing Disney plan to make an Alice in Wonderland film when he struck a deal with them in 2007. He commented at the time that while all previous Alice adaptations had merely felt like "a girl wandering around from one crazy character to another", he wanted his film to have a stronger grounding and greater emotional resonance.
He endeavours to achieve this by fusing elements of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking Glass, into a new and rather darker story, to which he also adds distinctive twists of his own.
If all of this sounds like sacrilege, get over it, because Burton has managed to capture the essence of Carroll's gleefully anarchic and subversive spirit in a film that mixes animation and live action to frequently glorious effect.
Australian actress Mia Wasikowska -- who so impressed as one of Gabriel Byrne's patients in In Treatment -- plays Alice Kingsley, who, when we first meet her, is in imminent danger of being press-ganged into an unhappy marriage. The 19-year-old Alice is ushered by her mother (Lindsay Duncan) to a garden party at a vast estate where she discovers she will shortly be proposed to by the owners' odious son. She's just wondering what to do about this when she sees what she thinks is a very large white rabbit out of the corner of her eye. She rushes after it and tumbles down a rabbithole that deposits her in the Underland.
Once she has negotiated her way out of a big room with a little door, Alice finds herself in an enchanted and colourful land full of strange insects and talking animals. She meets the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), a strange pair of twins called Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) and a wise old caterpillar called Absolem (Alan Rickman), and what's even more disturbing than the oddness of these creatures is that they seem to think they've met her before.
In time, Alice will remember that she visited the Underland 10 years before, but meanwhile she realises that she's clearly considered to be some sort of divine saviour, who must end the reign of the demented Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) by killing her most feared servant, the grotesque Jabberwocky. And though Alice initially resists this whole idea, she is gradually persuaded that her new friends will be doomed forever if she doesn't confront the Queen and her dragon.
All of this proceeds at a stately rather than an overly frenetic pace, which helps Burton and his actors give their story more coherence and resonance. To this end, also, Depp's Mad Hatter becomes an almost tragic figure, a red-haired, bug-eyed clown who seems a kind of victim of his own insanity. There's a touch of Chaplin in there, a smidgen of Edward Scissorhands, and it's a nicely judged and oddly moving little performance.
As is Bonham Carter's Red Queen, a histrionic tyrant with a massive bulbous head and an alarming tendency to behead things at the drop of a hat. The Cheshire Cat is beautifully done, a grinning wisp of a thing that tends to disappear in a puff whenever the going gets tough and is exquisitely voiced by the velvet tones of Fry.
The film is shot in 3D, which is used to good effect in highlighting Burton's beautiful designs, from his armoured playing cards and threadbare March Hare to his almost psychotically wholesome White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Typically, he seems to have poured loving craft into every single aspect of this film, and the result is a real delight.