Tim Burton's track record as a visionary director is hard to argue with. His gothic themes and twisted settings make his output instantly recognisable and surely there are few within the cinematic industry as striking with the visual styles they employ. His use of dark imagery has pushed him a little to the side of the true mainstream, with his appearance, dressed all in black, and his twisted sense of humour have marked him out as the perennial outsider figure. That being said, his works remain by far the most accessible of any periphery figure on the Hollywood landscape. His status as someone looking from the outside in, a slightly morbid and mischievous auteur willing to make films to satisfy his own whims, has helped him achieve a form of cult status for legions of fans desperate to see more offbeat tales coming out of the industry.
Having recently blessed audiences with his own take on the Roald Dahl classic Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005) and the gruesome tale of one of London's most notorious serial killers with Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007), he has once again moved back into the territory that arguably made his name, that of adaptations. Breaking into the collective public consciousness with his seminal take on the Batman universe with his 1989 film of the same name, he showed himself capable of breathing new life into a story that had been told many times previously. Couple this ability to refresh familiar material with his penchant for animation, as shown with The Nightmare Before Christmas and more recently The Corpse Bride and the idea of Burton taking on the task of bringing a part live action and part computer animated retelling of Lewis Carroll's classic children's book Alice in Wonderland would seem to be the perfect pairing of artist and source material.
More than just a mere reiteration of Carroll's tale, Burton has moved back to the word he coined for his vision of The Planet of the Apes, by once again introducing the word “reimagining”. In this version of the story, Alice is not a child but instead a 19 year old girl, on the verge between childhood and womanhood. She has lost her father and is set to be married off to a suitor not of her choosing, about which she is corralled with various assurances that she will never do better than a Lord and that her looks won't last for ever. In a manner that will likely seem very reminiscent of Spielberg's Hook, our protagonist has since forgotten her previous adventures in the magical realm of Wonderland and written them off as dreams born from her young mind.
Taking the role of Alice is the relative newcomer Mia Wasikowska, an actress most likely unknown to her audience, but has appeared in a few supporting roles and made her breakthrough the year Burton chose her for the part, also gaining a starring role in The Kids are All Right the same year. She is flanked by the now ever present figures in Burton's films, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham-Carter. The former takes his outrageous penchant for outlandish characterisation to the role of The Mad Hatter and the latter inhabits the regal part of The Red Queen. In this narrative, Alice has been led down the hole by The White Rabbit to find a world in turmoil, with The Red Queen ruling with a dictatorial heavy hand, executing minions and subjects at will with a repeated cry of “Off with his head!”. Our heroine has been intentionally drawn to this hellish scenario by her fantasy childhood companions for the purpose of rising up against this tyranny, slaying The Jabberwocky and thus restoring order to the world by deposing the monarch and replacing her with her sister, the gentler White Queen (played by Anne Hathaway).
Just about everything sounds perfectly placed for Burton to inject his trademark dark humour and place it against a backdrop of a gothic fairytale. Unfortunately, all does not go according to plan. Depp performs his usual turn as a strange and misunderstood individual, his Hatter is brimming with creativity and you are left with little doubt that a great deal of time, thought and effort has gone into his creation, but in the end it comes across as a touch over-egged. Resplendent in every possible adornment that one could possibly attach to a milliner, the sum total is a costume that fails to strike a chord because of its complexity. It is no coincidence that the most noteworthy thing about the costume is his hat and hair, by far the simplest pieces of his get up. Depp brings an energy to the role, but the script lets him down as there are few instances of either truly heartfelt dialogue or well orchestrated comedy for him to stretch his performance with. In place of lines that might prove memorable he is left to inject his character with a strange split personality disorder. This proves a vain effort to gain some semblance of magic out of a role that all too often seems designed to perform a function in propelling the narrative rather than stoking the viewer's imagination or, as one might expect, tickling their funny bones.
With the hope that The Mad Hatter might be the iconic image taken from this piece swiftly dispelled, it falls to Alice and The Red Queen to make an impression. Bonham-Carter helps bring a delicious menace to the dastardly monarch, and is perhaps the most three dimensional character in the entire film - a situation that is made all the odder considering the fact that her head has been digitally stretched in order to make her appear an oddity. She helps represent all that is good about Burton's vision of Wonderland, with her court being a delightful mix of computer generated characters and live action actors. Sadly the figure of Alice counterbalances this and ultimately has the greatest drag factor on the film's ability to stir the audience. What should by rights have been a textbook Burton character, full of wonderment, enthusiasm and a childlike thirst for the fantastical, instead is let down by a poor script and uneven characterisation. When introduced to us as a bored and ill at ease girl set to be married off, we are preparing to see a spark of life that will determine her to be more at home in the world of absurdity and fantasy that is Wonderland. What happens is more akin to a petulant teenager, whose inability to concentrate would likely have her dismissed as educationally subnormal. When spoken by a child, bumping into someone at the sight of birds in the air and the thought of what it would be like to fly, or commenting that perhaps if someone wishes to have red roses rather than white they should simply be painted would probably come across as delightfully whimsical. Coming from an adult it just seems a little odd, and I'm afraid Wasikowska's performance intimates Alice as being simple rather than imaginative.
The shift from the original material's childhood tale of discovery, to one that focuses on the pains of growing up and being bombarded with adult responsibilities requires a finer script than writer Linda Woolverton (whose credits include The Lion King and Homeward Bound: The Longest Journey) has given Burton and the cast to work with. The director has managed to create a world that works as a series of scenes but there is little in the way of coherence that ties this universe together as a tangibly reality. The argument can be made that this is what Carroll had laid down as a template and the original material was more a set of vignettes of absurdity, but if this were the aim it hasn't translated well to the screen. There is a notable lack of danger which modern audiences of more child orientated fare, such as the Harry Potter films, have come to expect. By the time we have reached the final confrontation, things seem vaguely reminiscent of the straightforward battles of Narnia than Carroll's bizarre delvings into the limitless imagination of youth. There may be key characters and a few nods to the nonsensical language of poems such as The Jabberwocky, but this will not appease those looking for a direct adaptation or be in any way comprehensible to those unfamiliar with the book.
Burton's vision of Wonderland is undoubtedly striking, with the computer generated imagery combining remarkably well with the actors' faces. The story though falls directly between two fields, neither fully aimed at those fans of the text or those looking for something genuinely new. If it was directed at children, the modern raft of titles such as The Golden Compass, the Narnia films and the Harry Potter franchise are streets ahead in terms of characterisations and, surprisingly for a Tim Burton film, imagination. Alice in Wonderland will hold your attention thanks to The Red Queen and the stellar cast that make up the majority of the comic turns, most notably Matt Lucas as Tweedle-Dee and Tweedle-Dum. The traditional staple of the charismatic outsider so often seen in his films is here nothing more than a series of odd and haphazard characters and for once Depp fails to make an impact as an empathetic figure. Perhaps the move to combine computer generated imagery with the live action was too much to pull together, with Danny Elfman's ever present score trying to paper over the cracks with its many sung “ooohs” ,“aaaahs” and orchestral swirls diverting attention from the lack of genuine danger or emotion. This stands as one of the most generic and soulless entries in Burton's oeuvre, that can sit alongside The Planet of the Apes as a title that aimed for too many targets and missed most of them. A reimagining that is a visual spectacle but frankly fails to stir the imagination.
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