Alice in Wonderland. What a project. An extremely popular story that in previous film adaptations has taken a children’s perspective in narrating the tale, ignoring, some purists think, the more complex undertones of the book. The Burton-Depp dream team is reunited here, nearly twenty years after their first foray together in the fabulous Edward Scissorhands, and with their track record of ‘weird films’ (Jonathan Ross’ words, not mine) this adaptation promised something spectacular.
Alice in Wonderland is for a start wrongly titled. The film blends characters and storylines from both the original book and its sequel Through the Looking Glass creating a confusing mix I thought. Characters from the latter book appear here such as Tweedle-dum and Tweedle-dee are combined with the likes of the Jabberwocky, which whilst originating from Carroll’s famous poem of the same name, was not technically a character in the books. It seemed as if Burton has selected an array of Wonderland characters in an almost random fashion to fill the screen. In any case the storyline is incredibly standardized; Burton has complied with the Hollywood formula of good versus evil, starring a willowy, dead-eyed heroine (Mia Wasikowska) whose cathartic journey gives her some backbone. If anything the plot is thin, differing from the books and Carroll’s clever intermingling of maths and philosophy.
Having said this, the film is certainly not bad; characterizations throughout are precise and reflect the director’s talent for the absurd. Although Alice is a dull and pallid heroine the rest of the cast more than make up for it. Anne Hathaway’s interpretation of the White Queen, with overtly elegant gestures and ironic take on sweetness is particularly entertaining, while Stephen Fry, dare I say it, pertains to his real life character as the Cheshire Cat. Johnny Depp creates an irresistible Mad Hatter with a Scottish accent and a collection of ridiculous mannerisms and illogical phrases. This being said, the ‘futterwacken’ – some sort of dance performed by the Hatter – was both out of place and perhaps a step too far.
Burton’s emphasis on irony and humour were key components of the film, and were enjoyable enough to distract from the rather diluted plot. An endearing scene with frog footmen at the beginning of the film is of particularly accomplished in this regard, aided by Helena Bonham-Carter’s Red Queen, whose attempts to conform to the archetypal wicked ruler bring moments of sheer comedy. The attention to detail and the beautiful camerawork served to emphasise such characters and scenes, which were only bolstered further by the 3D effects.
Whichever interpretation Burton chose was always going to have its critics. In many ways he has done justice to Carroll’s characters, but by tampering with the original storyline he has lost much of the enigmatic meaning of the original literary works, leaving the cast to carry this film.