Wednesday, 3 March 2010

Burton in Wonderland

I think Tim Burton has been waiting his entire life to make a movie of "Alice in Wonderland". His particularly skewed outlook on Carroll's absurd surrealism must be a match made in Wonderland, right?

Kind of.

Burton's excursion down the rabbithole is a mixed bag of the mundane and the fantastic in pretty equal measure.

Alice is all growed up at nineteen years of age, and is adrift in materialistic high-society - heading for a hasty, semi-arranged marriage to a ginger numpty at some garden-party - when she is distracted by a rabbit in a blazer and falls down a hole. Thus begins this sequel of sorts to Carroll's original tales.

Burton touches base with the majority of the memorable scenes and characters, whilst attempting to curtail some of the episodic tendencies of Carroll's writing by hanging them on a new narrative framework: a coming-of-age story involving fantasy staples such as prophecies, magic swords and a "chosen one" champion on a journey of self-discovery culminating in a big old shit-kick between two armies.

The strength of the film lies in the freak-show characters, the actors having a ball in the playing, and the undoubted picture-book beauty of Wonderland onscreen. The Cheshire Cat - lounging in midair and charming with Stephen Fry's mellifluous tones - almost steals the show, but faces fierce competition from Johnny Depp - playing The Mad Hatter as a split-personality veering between lisping upper-class twit and growling glaswegian psycho - and Helena Bonham Carter channelling Miranda Richardson's Queenie from Blackadder II.

Epic run-on sentences aside, some of these performances are unfortunately overshadowed by the CG make-up jobs they have been done up with. Carter's massive head is funny, Depp's oversized eyes perhaps a little distracting, and poor Crispin Glover's solid performance as the Knave of Hearts is rendered useless by his digital-spindly make-over as, everytime he's onscreen, you're thinking "His head's not on right!" or "His arms don't look real!" Or "That's George McFly! Hey George, you ever think about running for class president!?"

The CGI is perhaps overused, but is arguably all part of the fun. Burton has always gloried in the artifice of cinema, and Wonderland's landscapes are evocative, painterly renderings with no "Avatar"-style claims of "Photo-realism" to be made. Personally, however, I would rather have seen Burton's Wonderland in the deliberately shonky models-and-sets style of his earlier films, or perhaps even in stop-motion. Or with shadow-puppets. Or a flip-book.

The film's major weaknesses are in story - the occasionally unclear plot (sorry, why do they have to all go and have a battle on the spadoinkle day or whatever it's called?) being little more than an excuse for an "Alice's Greatest Hits" collection - and in the lead actress, Mia Wasikowska.

The newcomer attempts to imbue Alice with a spunky spirit and determination but never fully convinces, leaving a hollow point at the heart of the film. Of course, Alice is the "straight man" of this story, but Wasikowska never manages to communicate any level of emotion, and a large amount of her line-readings seem to be just that. Judging by this performance, she has been attending the Orlando Bloom school of acting: fluctuating between block of wood and soggy biscuit.

And finally: Danny Elfman's score actually made me laugh at how "Elfman-esque" it is, and The Mad Hatter does a horribly misjudged dance at the end that made me want to punch someone in the face quite hard.

Oh, and "Carry On" and "Eastenders" veteran Babs Windsor gives a career best performance as a gobby Dormouse. Make of that what you will.


  1. I'm going to go see this today with a huge group of Burton worshipers, it sounds about as good as I thought it would be. Bummer about Alice but I'm glad The Hatter isn't quite as ridiculous as he looked in the trailers. Also, excellent use of the word mellifluous :)

  2. I think you missed the whole heart of the story. What about the part of Alice discovering her path? Taking chance and risks in her fantasy helped her overcome her obstacles in reality. What about the queen of hearts? She was undecided between choosing Fear or Love, but finally pulled to Fear because of the humiliation she had to endure. I saw so much more in the story, I enjoyed reading you review. It was very well crafted and all, but I think you didn't focus enough on the details of the story that painting the whole picture even more vividly to our senses.

  3. SugaryCynic: I have been waiting to use the word mellifluous for a long time, and there is no more deserving recipient of it than Stephen Fry.

    Sphere: In hindsight, perhaps I didn't talk enough about the story problems in the review. I felt that the central arc for Alice was a little undercooked - which ties in to the plotting - as she didn't really change all that much throughout. I mean, she came across as pretty forthright and eccentric in the pre-wonderland scenes, was brave and loyal throughout wonderland and then suddenly decided she wasn't that brave and loyal, and then that she was. Her "arc" is more like a straight line, with a blip on it when they tell her she has to kill the Jabberwocky.

    Same goes for the Red Queen. There never seemed to be any genuine conflict between love/fear in her mind, it just came across as a little forced attempt to give her an extra dimension.

    Thank you both for commenting!

  4. If there's one thing I forgot to mention in my review, it's that wretched Hatter Dance at the end. Just unforgivable. Even the music makes you want to puke vomit into his hat.

    Excellent review sir.