Tim Burton has nailed it like the March Hare throwing a tea-cup, with his spectacularly entertaining vision of Lewis Carroll’s classic novel, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. The narrative is a classic hero’s tale and not overcomplicated beyond that, while the heart of the film lies in wondrously playful performances by a cast of familiar acting talent.
Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now 19 years old, and her previous adventure in Wonderland is a distant childhood memory. While at her own surprise party to be engaged to a characteristically chinless aristocrat (I wonder what Prince Charles made of that at the Royal Premiere?!), Alice is distracted by a rabbit running through the grand gardens of the mansion. Feeling the call of something greater than her present circumstances, she abandons the party and follows the rabbit, falling down the familar hole in the ground that leads to Wonderland.
Essentially this is a twist on the original novel in that the familiar situations and characters are there, but they have to be rediscovered for a different purpose by Alice on the threshold of womanhood, rather than Alice the child. It is Joseph Campbell’s Hero Journey, with Alice having to pass through the labyrinthine world to seize the prize. She gives in to the pull of her considerable imagination and follows the distant rhythm of the White Rabbit’s ticking pocketwatch, resisting the expectations and putdowns of the comically corseted world of her family.
I was so surprised not only to like the film, but to have thoroughly enjoyed it. I’m not a huge fan of fantasy and have never read Carroll’s novel, but the casting makes up for any perceived shortfall in adherence to the source. Johnny Depp naturally gets honourable mention for his Mad Hatter of multiple personalities; a softly spoken Wonka-esque performance puntuated by occasional campness with thunderclaps of aggressive Scottishness. Unfortunately for Anne Hathaway as the White Queen, she is completely overshadowed by her sister the tempestuous Red Queen, played by Helena Bonham-Carter. Surely a barnstorming resurrection of Queenie from BBC TV’s Blackadder II, the Red Queen is coy and coquettish, but prone to execute anyone on a whim. There is a sub-text of rivalry and jealousy in the relationship between the two, as when the Red Queen rants against her kindlier sister for getting everything that she desired of their parents. It is a poignant moment when the Red Queen speaks from a broken heart that, “perhaps it is better to be feared, than loved”.
Alan Rickman drolls as the wise, shisha smoking caterpillar Absolum (smoking, in a children’s film? Slyly done Mr Burton!) whose few cryptic words guide Alice towards her self-determination. My favourite would be Stephen Fry as the vaporous Cheshire Cat, slinking and evaporating where required with the cunning of a Member of Parliament. I must admit that even Barbara Windsor was unrecognisable in voicing the feisty Dormouse. Christopher Lee voices the Jabberwocky with booming malevolence, and his part in the final showdown carries faint echoes of The Lord of the Rings battle sequences.
The visual effects blend effortlessly in Wonderland, partly because we suspend disbelief so readily for a fantasy film and of course, due to the skill of the artists. The thought struck me that the 3D effects were considerably smoother than in Avatar, though this may be down to the Dolby 3D system rather than the more common RealD system.
I’ve not read the novel, so Burton’s version may be a vast deviation from its literary origins, but this does not matter. It’s terrific fun. If you still haven’t found the way out of your own rabbit hole, don’t be late for this appointment. The clock is ticking.