Published: 4 March 2010
by DAN CARRIER
ALICE In Wonderland has been given the big screen treatment before, so the trick for Tim Burton has to be to find a new way to tell Lewis Carroll’s tale and use all the special effects now in studios’ armouries to create a grand masterpiece.
There was the Disney cartoon version of 1951, and then the more spooky 1985 take which I recall seeing on the telly. But this effort from Burton is a spangly romp rather than a chilly, scary exploration of the untamed wilds of a little person’s subconscious.
This is not a straight retelling of the Alice stories (there were actually two – Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, which Carroll wrote between 1865 and 1870). Instead, we meet Alice aged 19 at a swanky aristo garden party where, unknown to the poor teenager, she is about to be asked for her hand in marriage.
Her admirer, the detestable Lord Hamish, is a dead ringer for David Cameron, as if actor Leo Bill has based his entire character on the Tory toff. Poor Alice.
Alice’s attention is then grabbed by the appearance of a white rabbit in a waistcoat, and as she disappears from her kneeling admirer, she falls down a rabbit hole and the fun kicks off.
Wonderland is well-imagined, its variety of creatures lovely to look at. Burton’s vision seems to have drawn on classic English garden design, as if the sets have been put together by Capability Brown.
The cast reads like a Who’s Who of grand Brit actors: as well as Burton’s usual suspects Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter, there is Timothy Spall, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Barbara Windsor, Sir Christopher Lee, Paul Whitehouse and Matt Lucas (as both Tweedledum and Tweedledee – top casting, that) all chipping in with voices.
But there are flaws. The film feels shallow – a big old bun fight is made of the fact there is a bit of bad blood between the Queen of Hearts, played by a gloriously computer-tweaked Bonham Carter, whose head has been expanded to a monstrous size, and her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) on the other side.
Quite why they should hate each other so much is never made clear, although the Queen of Hearts’ grotesque behaviour and constant calls to lop off someone’s head means her sibling’s dislike is obvious. But the rivalry is meant to provide some kind of dramatic impetus to the story, and any background information as to why the Queen of Hearts should be such a miserable old bag is completely ignored. And Burton is, I am afraid, becoming a cliché of himself. Depp’s Mad Hatter character seems to be roughly based on a mixture of Beetlejuice and the actor’s recent, tepid display as Willy Wonka.
However, there are some priceless moments, mainly provided by the characters who are complete figments of a computer’s imagination: the evil Queen plays golf with a flamingo and a hedgehog, and oh how I’d like to keep one of those spiky, squeaky balls as a pet.
Cheshire Cat, voiced by Stephen Fry, is marvellous puffing in and out of scenes in a mystical cloud of smoke, while the Hare could not be more cuddly.
But this theatrical and hammy film is not quite wonky enough, as if Burton has been tamed by commercial pressures to make it a kind of fantastical war film between Red and White Queens, with Alice as the knight in shining armour coming to Wonderland’s rescue.
It feels somewhat like a missed opportunity for Burton, who is in many ways our age’s version of Lewis Carroll.