Starring: Johnny Depp. Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Crispin Glover, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, Christopher Lee
Director: Tim Burton
Writer(s): Linda Woolverton, Lewis Carroll (novel)
Cinematography: Dariusz Wolski
Original Score: Danny Elfman
Running Time: 108 Mins.
If there is something as certain as death and taxes it is director Tim Burton’s ability to make each and every one of his films visually arresting, in fact regardless of plot, characterisation or anything else you are guaranteed a visual feast, the most potent of chewing gum for the eyes, there really are few film-makers with the consistency of style as Burton and this is undoubtedly why he is credited as one of the very few remaining real “auteurs”. He has turned his hand to remakes and retellings of classic stories before of course, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory being the most apparent, and it is a fair assumption that his take on Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland shares many of that films attributes.
So with this in mind we have,the visual flourishes? Check. A central role for Johnny Depp at his eccentric best? (or worst, dependent on your view of the man’s eccentricities) Check. a rather darker retelling than that which we are accustomed too? Check. And one which claims to hark back to the original source material…hmm, not quite, you see this is neither remake nor reimagining, more a kind of sequel, what Hook was to Peter Pan is probably the best comparison, though it is one that is relevant in context only thankfully given that film’s…problems!
Just as the visuals are always present and correct and suitably stunning and inventive so too is the all too often fact that any inventiveness is surface sheen cannot hide a shallow or weakly plotted story, one that allows characters to have little beyond their eccentricities, and forsakes actual pacing in favour of gothic stylings and set design, a standard that Burton has become accustomed to fitting more and more in the last ten years, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, Sleepy Hollow, Planet of the Apes, all luscious to the eye but nothing for the brain, no meat beyond the skin.
Which begs the question, does Alice in Wonderland fit this mould, or has Burton broken from the visual rut to give us something of substance? Well, to be honest it flirts with both sides to my argument, there really is no doubt that visuals are first and foremost to Alice in Wonderland, how could they not be? The title says it all, Wonderland, and in his vision of such a place the standard Burton darkness is evident, toothy creatures, tangled trees, heads bobbing in a moat and Johnny Depp at his most eccentric, but somehow it all just seems to fit so fantastically and in Wonderland the plot stems from the visuals. Of course it helps that this is the best use of 3D yet, quite frankly putting Avatar to some shame in its forestry and flying creatures, and is likely the best argument FOR 3D yet, something exemplified in the Cheshire Cat’s floating head, the March Hare tossing teacups and the smoke from the Caterpillars hookah feeling like it is filling the cinema auditorium, for once I felt immersed in the world as Cameron claimed was his intention with the vastly over-rated and over-done Avatar!
But enough of the 3D debate, Alice in Wonderland‘s strengths stem beyond this, and the characters are all rounded enough to make you care for them in their quest to save Wonderland (or Underland as they dub it), mixing motion capture techniques (Tweedles Dum and Dee) with pure CGI creations (The Hare, Bloodhound) and some that retain their vocal’s facial features (the Caterpillar), while others are simply the actors with exaggerated features and, as expected, great make up (The Mad Hatter and The Queen of Hearts). You could watch the film on repeat and simply admire the vast amount of imagination that has gone into each of the characters designs, surface gloss maybe but by god is there a lot of it!
Though that is really to do the film and those populating it a disservice, while many characters get only a few scenes they are still uniformly great and credit is due to the casting director, each voice is a perfect fit for the chosen character, Paul Whitehouse, Barbara Windsor, Timothy Spall, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, all put their heart and soul into whom they are tasked with bringing to life. Special mention is reserved for Stephen Fry’s Cheshire cat and Matt Lucas as the Dum twins, helped by thier ingenious physical presence the vocals are second-to-none and the only criticism I would have is that I would gladly sit through a whole film of the Cheshire Cat if only to hear Fry’s voice tallied up with some of the best use of CGI character yet!
Sadly, and inevitably, there are flaws, once again plot comes second to seemingly everything else but if you don’t find yourself enveloped in the menagerie of the cast and the wacky humour are sparky dialogue you have to be as mad as the hatter! Shot through with a crazy exuberance each scene is tinged with a totally weird sense of fun, and as good as newcomer Wasikowska is as Alice she is simply the eyes through which we see Wonderland. Something which means the somewhat jarring framing device highlights, clear attempts have been made to provide a moral of sorts, it is a Disney financed film after all, but they seem at odds with the bulk of the action.
The cherry on the cake however is Depp, channeling some kind of schizophrenic Scotsman with over-sized green eyes, his Hatter is not simply some raving loony but is, naturally, upgraded to the hero of the story full of a tragic pathos that undercuts the madness. He is not far short of a romantic interest for Alice, thankfully the film falls short of allowing this to be fully formed and instead rests on the “value of friendship”, but really this kind of message matters not a jot when a film is this infectiously and enjoyably manic, just like the Hatter himself!
Alice in Wonderland is practically the ultimate Tim Burton film, take everything you know of the man’s films and crank them up by 100% then add in a third dimension, there are the usual flaws but the positives far outweigh them, Fry’s Cheshire Cat, Johnny Depp’s Hatter, the Tweedle twins, the Jbberwocky battle, the brilliantly zany humour…I could go on…but that would just be madness!