Once upon a time, a fair few had tried meddling with Lewis Carroll’s literary apothecary, and the results were somewhat varied: some ended up plain mediocre, some poisoned by toxic cinematic waste, and many unfortunate souls forever banished to Dullsville. From the silents, to animation, to talkies, to brash Technicolour, to kiddie television (you can IMDB it, the list is bloody endless) – there is none that bring the visionary inventiveness and bravura to Carroll’s children’s classic that deserves the title ‘great film’. That is, if you set aside Spirited Away, which is arguably Hayao Miyazaki’s reworking of the tale, a Japanese Alice in Wonderland. Other than that, virtually zilch. So when Disney announced they’re having a second stab at the much-influential fairytale with Tim Burton and Johnny Depp on the bandwagon, there’s not much groaning as excitable lolloping amongst the Burtonian fandom. Perhaps Burton, the most zany, eccentric, Mad Hatter of Hollywood cinema, will bring us theAlice the mainstream has been waiting for. Perhaps.
As it seems, this is mere wishful thinking. Although Burton’s signature visual touches are ever present (swooping cameras and post-modern Gothic otherworldliness to Underland’s design), its narrative is pure Hollywood gossamer gloss, with the Mickey Mouse studio capitalising on a British national treasure to engage business with the 10-year old demographic. So we have a 19-year old Alice in this reimagining of Adventures in the Wonderlandand Through the Looking Glass by way of sequel, where Alice flees a stuffy Victorian engagement party and her fiancée-wannabe and stumbles down into the rabbit-hole the second time around to find that the primary-coloured Wonderland of her childhood days is now all dark and ominous Underland ruled by a tyrant, the Red Queen. What promises to be an existential, brooding, coming-of-age character-piece turns into something like Narnia on acid trip.
There are the famous, if obligatory, shrinking-and-growing sequences, and the oddball characters returning for a cinematic tea-party and so far, so pedestrian. Mia Wasikowska as nearly-adult Alice is fine and feisty, but somehow lacking the conviction needed for an empowered female of the Victorian period of corsets. Not until Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter enters the scene and chews them, with gap-toothed gameness. His Hatter is a work of both extraordinary performing dexterity and utter silliness, seesawing from a British dandy to a boorish Scotsman whilst remaining surreally loony. Adding to the lot is Helena Bonham-Carter as the Red Queen, a scream of a character throwing tantrums like a big child ‘Off with their heads!’, with a magnificently magnified head, a grotesquerie subtly inspired by Bette Davis’ Queen in The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex. Bonham-Carter, an omnipresent Burton collaborator (and wife), is obviously having a whale of a time, and so does Anne Hathaway as the royal sister White Queen, a dreamy Nigella Lawson doppelganger. Plus a bunch of British thespians lending their voices in passable fashion; Alan Rickman as the high-on-hooka caterpillar, Stephen Fry as slinky Cheshire Cat, Timothy Spall as the valorous hound Bayard, Michael Sheen as the Rabbit, and Sir Christopher Lee as the Jabberwocky. It’s all tolerable, only until both sides of the warring clans form a climactic battle set in a giant chessboard the size of a stadium you’d want to smack yourself awake from this recurring dream, increasingly turning into a nightmare. Then the Mad Hatter starts break-dancing afterwards. That’s the point where you definitely shriek yourself awake. Immediately.
Not so much Burtonesque as shoddy Hollywood plot-picking, roll-calling, re-wrapping moribund mainstream affair. You’d wish Burton haven’t made this for Disney, as it feels like a Narnia déjà vu. Visually exuberant yet aesthetically uninspiring. Count this as another failed stab on Carroll.