Few directors in tinsel town are as qualified to direct a “remake” or “reimagining” or “readaptation” or whatever you want to call it of Lewis’ Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland than out-there auteur Tim Burton, who has long proved his mettle as a filmmaker with an insatiable penchant for psychotropic production values.
From Edward Scissorhands to Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Burton has established himself as a sort of safe facilitator of recreational drug use: if you don’t want to ingest hallucinogens but still want to experience the effects, he’s your man.
Burton’s spin on Alice’s iconic adventures down the rabbit hole and beyond blends both of Carroll’s books (Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) with new and revised scenes and set pieces, so audiences who think they have the story pegged will be in for some surprises.
The story is bookended by real-world chunks, beginning with Alice as a young girl explaining to her father that she’s been haunted by a dream in while she is falling. 13 years later Alice is still having the same dream; she has never, in fact, dreamt anything else. At an upper crust social gathering a snooty young Lord is preparing to ask her hand in marriage when a certain time-keeping animal whisks across the scenery, mumbling about Alice’s apparent tardiness. One trippy tumble later the scene is set for the return of the Cheshire Cat and its ear-to-ear grin, the conversationally aloof hookah-smoking caterpillar, the oppressive Red Queen, those fat twits Tweedledum and Tweedledee and the remaining entourage of colourful creatures from Alice’s dream land.
Burton delivers what his fans were hoping for: an amorously dark and eerily beautiful fresh spin on Carroll’s now familiar universe, draped in enigmatic images and chocked to the gills with visual flourishes.
Cinematography by Dariusz Wolski is over-stated by extreme use of colour, the odd look of a visual structure audiences must constantly come to terms with, though it’s a step down from the gaudy eye-hurting tones of Burton’s Wonka remake. The small touches are terrific: frogs, fish, monkeys and pigs are the Red Queen’s servants, and her human assistants wear fake prosthetic body parts in order to make themselves look like freaks, to fit in with the Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her abnormally sized cranium. Burton nails the crucial dreamlike vibe and, predictably, edges it closer to the realm of nightmare. Alice in Wonderland is a visual treat, though the 3D effects, tacked on in post production, look lacklustre in comparison to the new standard set by Avatar.
Milking a borderline unrecognisable Johnny Depp in full-tilt OTW mode, expect much more of the Mad Hatter, whose flamboyant garb and makeup-streaked visage resembles a kind of transsexual, vaudevillian Sideshow Bob. Similar to the origins back story Burton and Depp gave Will Wonka, we learn of a ghastly event that broke his mind – a superfluous touch, perhaps, but not altogether out of place. Depp relishes the role with his trademark attention-hogging flair and Aussie Mia Wasikowska is a perfect fit as Alice, moulding traditional beauty with something more enigmatic and tougher to place.
The iconic tea party scene is understatedly reinvented, floating into the frame with a misty gothic atmosphere that feels part cartoon, part live action, part Dali landscape. This time the insanity around the tea table carries a vaguely tragic backdrop, a sense that the guests’ kooky banter comes at a serious price. Most directors would have played this scene a lot safer. Regardless of your judgement of Burton, he has maintained his trademark left-of-centre style without being noticeably impacted by commercial restraints, with only one exception, though it was a big one – his awful head-scratching remake of Planet of the Apes.
Overall Burton gets the elements about right bar a couple of missteps. The final battle scene in which Alice faces off against a dragon while reciting her list of six impossible things is unfortunately generic, the sort of wham-slam-bam! battle montage we’ve seen countless times before, though the sheer Burton-lathered look of it – weird beasts, a boofhead Red Queen, creepily skewed backdrops etcetera – separates it somewhat from garden variety large scale action scenes.
If Burton had retained more of Carroll’s literary merits – those wonderful poems, riddles, word plays and absurdist banter – the film could have been something really special. It’s unfortunate, too, that the plot feels a little loosey goosey, as if it’s making it up as it goes along, and struggling at times to do that. Regardless, Alice in Wonderland is a hoot, a spectacle of bright, dark and dazzling atmospheric inventions.
Alice in Wonderland’s Australian theatrical release date: March 4, 2010