Alice in Wonderland Review
Writing a plot synopsis for Alice in Wonderland feels just a little redundant. Is there anyone out there who doesn’t know the gist of the story? A bored young girl spies a talking rabbit checking his watch, and follows it down a rabbit hole, whereupon she finds herself in a strange world filled with bizarre characters. From there, things only grow curiouser and curiouser…
Well, it’s worth reiterating it this time because Tim Burton's version of the Lewis Carroll classic deviates a good deal from the original story. First off, Alice is much older here: in fact, she’s about to be married off to a family friend, and she’s not altogether convinced this is what she wants. She has vague memories of a childhood trip to Wonderland (or Underland as it is now called), but these only surface in her dreams. One could argue that this makes it something of a sequel, but Burton has denied that, and indeed some of Alice’s adventures here are simply lifted straight from the book. On the other hand, Alice’s return to Wonderland has been foretold and is eagerly anticipated by some of its citizens. Alice herself is initially convinced they have the wrong girl called Alice. Sequel or “re-imagining”? You decide.
It is soon clear that something has gone terribly wrong in Wonderland. The despotic Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has taken charge. The Hatter’s Tea Party (a rather forlorn affair here) is raided by the Queen’s henchman, Stayne. (Crispin Glover). The Hatter (Johnny Depp) and Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas) are abducted, and Alice soon realizes she must lead her old friends in to battle to return the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to the throne.
Your enjoyment of this version of Alice in Wonderland, as with all Tim Burton films, will come down to whether you enjoy Burton’s particular style of filmmaking. One the one hand there is certainly plenty to enjoy. Blessed with a strong cast, the characters jump off the screen (be they in 2D or 3D – for the record, I watched the 2D version. When it comes to 3D, I am in the camp that will quite happily watch a 3D film if it was shot and designed for 3D, and not simply converted afterwards in a cynical cash grab, as was the case here). Depp is as quirky as you would expect as the Hatter, but he’s not onscreen as much as the marketing would have you believe. Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen makes a stronger impression, while Anne Hathaway’s White Queen is amusingly reminiscent of Nigella Lawson. Of the vocal cast, Stephen Fry takes the honours with his sublime Cheshire Cat. Mia Wasikowska as Alice is fine, although she is simply reacting to CGI much of the time.
Of course, Burton’s biggest strength is his visual flair, and there is plenty of that to admire. Wonderland has a suitably dark and gloomy atmosphere to reflect the Red Queen’s rule of oppression. The visual effects, including the digitally altered performances of Matt Lucas’ Tweedles and the Red Queen herself, are strong, and Danny Elfman's score is also good, certainly one of his better ones in recent memory.
So it’s curious to report that there isn’t a great deal of excitement here, or more crucially, wonder. Partly this is because the new plot is paper thin, a very straight forward fantasy tale that can only have one outcome. A common criticism of Burton’s work is the concentration on visuals at the expense of the story, and so it is here. In some respects, it is regrettable they deviated from the original book so much – Burton’s version of the original Wonderland might have been altogether more interesting. The dark political nature of the story stifles much of the childish pleasure that Wonderland could otherwise have afforded.
It might also be down to the fact that with so many fantasy films in the past few years, we have seen much of this before – not to mention several past versions of this particular tale. But a nagging suspicion remains that Burton just isn’t very interested in this world. It could have been directed by almost anyone else, and although Burton brings some of his trademark elements in to play, it never really envelops the viewer as his best works do. For the most part though, this is an enjoyable trip, despite its flaws – especially if, as a rule, you are a Tim Burton fan.