People have been enthralled by Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland since 1865, but it probably wasn’t until the 1951 Disney animation that most people became familiar with Mad Hatters, Cheshire Cats and talking caterpillars.
This should have been the perfect vehicle for Tim Burton’s larger than life imagination but it feels more like a shapeless collage of ideas, thrown together without any thought for narrative.
Alice is now a young woman of 19 and after running away from an arranged marriage to some chinless toff, she finds herself tumbling down the same rabbit hole she tripped down as a child. Wonderland contains familiar inhabitants: Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum (Matt Lucas in a wonderful turn), the Cheshire Cat (a scene-stealing Stephen Fry) and the Mad Hatter – given spotlight by a red-barnetted Johnny Depp who flits between genteel protectiveness and a bizarre “see you Jimmy” Scottish accent when roused.
They’re all glad to see her because they’re up against the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter doing a pretty good impression of Miranda Richardson), an oversize-headed tyrant with a temper and a penchant for beheadings.
She rules Wonderland with an iron fist and the help of her pets, the Bandersnatch (which looks like an overgrown snow leopard), the Jabberwock (a dragon-like creature voiced by Christopher Lee) and her servant the Knave (Crispin Glover), an eye-patch wearing soldier while opposing her sister, The White Queen (Anne Hathaway).
As you’d expect from a Tim Burton-directed movie, Wonderland is a shade darker than many of its previous incarnations but imagination still rules the day; the White Queen mixes potions with ingredients that include actual buttered fingers; a rocking-horse fly and a dragon-fly do battle in mid-air.
The 3D effects help flesh out a few scenes but it wouldn’t have been particularly changed by its omission; there’s certainly nothing on the breathtaking scale of Avatar’s technical wizardry.
For all this grandiosity and spectacle, you can’t help but wonder where this is going. In some ways, it feels like Burton has let us in to his untidy bedroom – there are great ideas littered about the place, but they’re strewn so haphazardly that it’s hard to make any sense of it all.
And who is this film for? It’s too dark for children (even if I do think that children are tougher than adults give them credit for). For adults it lacks that sense of fairytale wonder that films like this should have – Burton’s macabre overtures leave little room for emotionally engaging characters.
Unfortunately, the legacy left by the 1951 Disney film is more fun, more colourful and actually much weirder and will endure far longer than Burton’s modern reimagining which is as insubstantial as the Cheshire Cat’s smile.