Do we need another Alice in Wonderland film, you may ask. Lewis Carroll’s books have been adapted umpteen times before. But given the silly, surreal subject matter, Alice was a Tim Burton film waiting to happen. It’s only a shame he didn’t get there first. Because the good news is Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is neither an act of cultural vandalism (unlike Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), nor is it all vivid imagination and super set design with no actual brains or substance (ditto).
For anyone unfamiliar with Carroll’s books, Alice falls down a rabbit hole and has some surreal adventures. And … that’s it. Forget conflict and emotional drama, it’s all talking animals, nonsense and tea parties. So it’s a good move, then, that there’s a bit of back-story to bookend Burton’s Alice: a childhood history of strange dreams, an undesirable suitor. When Alice falls down the rabbit hole, she’s at a posh garden party being pressured into agreeing to marry a bumbling toff (picture a ginger Boris Johnson and you’re halfway there).
Just as Burton’s name is the one that springs to most minds if you mention The Nightmare Before Christmas or Coraline, regardless of the fact Henry Selick directed both, it’s unlikely anyone’s going to dwell on the fact Alice in Wonderland was written by Linda Woolverton, who co-wrote The Lion King. This is Burton through and through: a gothic fairytale with gloriously macabre sets and weird, wonderful characters, such as Rickman’s hookah-smoking caterpillar, Fry’s scene-stealing Cheshire Cat and Bonham Carter’s megalomaniac Red Queen. And of course, Depp’s Mad Hatter. You can see flashes of so many previous Burton-and-Depp collaborations in the wild, mad, tortured Hatter: Edward Scissorhands, Sweeney Todd. It’s very much his take on the idea of Alice – a reimagining, not an adaptation.
There’s a lot missing, too: no Mock Turtle, no Gryphon, no Lobster Quadrille, the White Rabbit never utters the phrase “I’m late!” and the White Queen doesn’t bang on about “Jam tomorrow and jam yesterday – but never jam today,” as she’s too busy simpering and being sickeningly good and nice (but not that nice, actually, you’ll discover). What you will find is a lot more emphasis on Jabberwocky, the nonsense poem which – and you may well have forgotten this – was originally found in Through the Looking-Glass.
For the most part, the film hangs together well. The extra touches that have been added to give it narrative structure – whisperings about whether this Alice is the right one, the emotional depths added to her friendship with the Mad Hatter – work well, although the one wrong move was turning Alice into a hero on a quest, wrong-footing the movie with talk of special swords and destiny. Burton’s Alice could have been deeper and darker, but it’s a tough balancing act to bring the sheer silliness and nonsense of the source material without losing too much authenticity. It’s not a masterpiece, but this is a solid slice of Burton.
SECOND OPINION | Neil Davey * The Cheshire Cat. That's what scores the single star for this overblown, dull, badly animated, all too familiar bit of Burton masturbation. After ruining Charlie & The Chocolate Factory (Wonka has a beard and isn't a sub-Michael Jackson creepy paedophile, you big haired twat) and Sweeney Todd (lose the choral parts, lose the subtext - although that's probably just me being a little bit gay and knowing too much about show tunes), the endlessly smug Burton has turned his attention to this version of Alice in Wonderland. Only it's not an "adaptation". It's a "reimagining". Because Burton, who hasn't made a decent film since Ed Wood in 1994, is clearly so much better than Lewis Carroll whose endearing nonsensical tale has been a firm favourite for 145 years.
Yes, Tim, clearly you've got the more imaginative nature. We so love it when you use the same bleeding imagery and "quirky" fantasy creatures that you've been using your entire career. It's not boring at all, really it's not. And yes, of course you can explain how Carroll was wrong, and that it's Underland not Wonderland. And yes, what a brilliant idea to have it not be a dream but to suggest it's real and therefore completely undermine YOUR framing device AND the whole fucking point of the story. You complete arse. Tell you what, while you're busy destroying a children's classic, why not gloss it all up with the worst CGI for several years and thoroughly unconvincing 3D? That'll really make this a classic polished turd for our time, particularly if you draft in Johnny Depp to play the Mad Hatter and let him say "Fez!" a lot and talk in a variety of accents to prove that — yes! — he's Mad. And if you could finish the job by casting an Alice who's so wooden you could turn her into a very nice credenza, that would be ideal.
The irony? I'm not even a huge fan of the book. But that, and all the other Carroll stories that Burton, in his "wisdom", shoehorns in, look even more like classics in comparison to this astonishing, irredeemably awful film. Tim Burton? Hang the camera up over there, put the director's chair back in the cupboard and fuck right off.
THIRD OPINION | Justin Bateman **** I have to confess, I was little apprehensive about seeing this. Firstly, I have always loved Lewis Carroll's stories, albeit mainly for the inventive wordplay. Secondly, Tim Burton is a bit hit and miss and sometimes his undoubtedly vivid imagination means that style outweighs substance to self-defeating degree. But with this reimagining he gets it pretty much spot on. I saw this in 3D at the IMAX and it looks wonderful, everything Wonderland ought to be, a multi-coloured, multi-textured world where animals talk and mythical creatures abound (and bound around). As you can see from the cast list, there are some terrific actors involved (can we just knight Stephen Fry now and be done with it?) with Matt Lucas highly amusing as the Tweedles and Crispin Glover particularly creepy as the Knave of Hearts.
Perhaps most pleasing though is the introduction of a narrative, yes, a proper plot which means that as a film it engages throughout. Sure, this isn't in keeping with the source material which had very little structure if truth be told but 100-odd (very odd at times) minutes of puns wouldn't really cut it, even for a word geek like me. Instead, Burton has crafted an old-fashioned adventure story which gallops along like a Bandersnatch with a strong if at times uncertain female character. Funny, weird, visually exuberant and never less than entertaining, this is a lot of fun, whether you like the original story or not.