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Films: Alice in Wonderland * * * *

(fantasy. Starring Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Matt Lucas. Directed by Tim Burton. cert pg)

Entering the savoy for the press screening of this movie, the usual harrumph of critics was greeted with the sight of colourfully dressed young women dispensing cups of Barry's Tea and tasty little cakes. Given that the usual breakfast of reviewers might at best consist of a hastily snatched cup of coffee this was a most pleasant diversion, but I began to have my doubts ten minutes into proceedings when I started to wonder whether I had been slipped some of the wares of several local head shops.

The original Lewis Carroll books Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass have a scattered, fever-dream feel about them, with not too much by way of a conventional narrative, and no better man than Tim Burton to take elements of both novels and turn them into this psychedelic phantasmagoria.

There have been several attempts to bring Carroll's works to the screen before but none ever really gelled, although Disney's 1951 animation fared better than most because it had the advantage of dispensing with actual actors, but with the benefit of modern special effects Burton has been given free rein to let his imagination run riot and he does so with relish.

The director and his screenwriter Linda Woolverton have taken liberties with the Alice stories, picking and choosing characters and scenarios from both books and, most obviously, making Alice a young woman of 19 rather than a small child.

This actually makes sense as the film unfolds, although we begin with Alice Kingsley (Australian actress Mia Wasikowska) on her way to a garden party where she's about to receive a proposal of marriage until she spots a rabbit wearing a jacket, familiar from a series of strange childhood dreams, and follows him down a hole and into a magical and terrifying world.

From here, Burton really lets rip with the mind- bending images as Alice embarks on a quest to free the inhabitants of this weird realm from the despotic clutches of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and into the benign hands of her younger sibling the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). As you well know, any hero on a quest needs companions and advisors, and Alice's chief comrade comes in the shape of the unpredictable Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), whose sometimes anarchic antics barely conceal an underlying sadness.

Depp and Bonham Carter make the most of their characters, the latter in particular having a ball as the tantrum-prone monarch, and Burton has also assembled a terrific voice cast for the CGI creations, including Stephen Fry (perfect for the Chesire Cat), Alan Rickman (the hookah-puffing caterpillar), Michael Sheen (the White Rabbit), Paul Whitehouse (the March Hare), Barbara Windsor (the Dormouse) and Christopher Lee (the terrifying Jabberwocky).

Purists may baulk at the changes Burton and Woolverton have made to a much-loved body of work but Alice in Wonderland is a terrific flight of the imagination, albeit one which may be a tad too terrifying for very small children. And, of course, anyone who pays a visit to a head shop before hitting the cinema.