Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a brash, old-fashioned fantasy adventure, with a subtle heart. Having chosen to take the original adventures of Alice forward into new territory, Burton has preserved the essence of a classic while also creating fresh facets for a wider audience to enjoy.
I don’t think I’m spoiling anything by telling you that this isn’t quite the Alice in Wonderland you have grown accustomed to. It is not a faithful remake of the original story, nor is it a complete reinvention; It’s more of a natural progression. The story tells of a 19-year-old Alice who had her dreams of Wonderland as a child, and is now on the cusp of adulthood and marriage. This is her return to Wonderland, now tackled by a young woman rather than a fascinated child being lead around by the madness of it all. This makes for a far more relateable character for the majority of the audience.
The original Alice in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass, elements of both of which are used in this film, still remain works aimed at children. While there are generous undertones of darkness provided by Lewis Carroll‘s able imagination, the majority of the events and characters are iconic cyphers to add colour to the stage. Tim Burton exploits some of that darkness, and while he can’t let loose his usual flamboyance(this is still a PG rated movie from Disney), he adds a surprising depth to the characters, taking them beyond stray pantomime figures. Just as Alice is a thinking woman and not just a naive little girl here, the Red Queen is not just an over-the-top villain, but a character with a coherent personality. The Mad Hatter is a real human being with a past, and not just a nut-job.
Also, the Blue Caterpillar is not just a smoking caterpillar, but also Alan Rickman! The computer imagery that depicts most of Wonderland and its characters is helped in no small measure by the able cast. Like the Blue Caterpillar, of special note is Stephen Fry voicing the Cheshire Cat, Barbara Windsor speaking as the Dormouse and many others.
Those who appear without CG-garb deserve no less praise for fleshing out their mythic roles. Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway are brilliantly camp as The Red Queen and The White Queen. While the Red Queen’s spoilt-tyrant personality is played with shrill finesse, the White Queen’s extra-sweet goodness is hilarious to watch, over-done admirably by Anne Hathaway channelling everything from children’s show presenters to TV chefs. Johnny Depp, a Tim Burton staple, is almost unrecognisable as the carefully nuanced Mad Hatter, and perfectly capping this great cast is Alice herself. While I haven’t seen Mia Wasikowska‘s previous work, she seems immediately familiar and is very effortless on screen. She plays the grown-up Alice with a quiet self-assuredness that holds this entire story together and takes it beyond a simple child’s tale.
Wonderland is appropriately wonderful. It has been given a welcome dark streak that makes it a real place and less of a stage set. While grand in scale and colour, the graphics for the entire world are surprisingly understated, with a lot of subtle detail put into the major locations where the story unfolds. Wonderland plays as much of an important role in this tale as the characters, and the visual execution of the realm is very seamless with the great performances by the actors, and the rousing background score.
The story itself is a streamlined version of the original gallivantings of little Alice though Wonderland. Where the original was a series of unfortunate adventures, this version makes it a rediscovery of a forgotten youth, tempered with a mythical quest. This particular treatment of the story results in a good old-fashioned fantasy adventure, the kind they don’t often make any more. As I’ve said about fairy tales before, this movie gives me hope that we can return to the workman-like simplicity of old fantasy movies, while still celebrating the freedom provided by new techniques in film-making.
Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland takes what was a fantastic children’s story and makes it mythical, while also pairing it down to its essentials. Here we see a return to the good old quest, where fantasy heroes are people too, a departure from more recent fantasy films where every player has been an angsty theatrical icon. While there is a place for that school of fantasy, I yearn for the return of this kind, where the stories were simple, where the characters were not trying to be worthy subjects for doctoral theses in Psychology, and where magic was magical.