Frankly I’m a bit surprised by Tim Burton‘s version of Lewis Carroll’s classic. Updating it for today’s 3D craving audience, and with a story shoehorned into the hero’s journey archetype, the director that made the near-masterpiece Ed Wood or even the overblown but terrific Sweeney Todd seems curiously absent.
His usual elements are in play: Johnny Depp as the loopy Mad Hatter, the Danny Elfman score, the emphasis of visuals over story and his wife, Helena Bonham Carter, tearing it up as the manic Red Queen. But despite them and a wonderland that looks like Pandora on acid, it’s too conventional, as if Burton was reporting to a committee, rather than the other way around.
Most startling is the screenplay by Linda Woolverton. Drawing more from Through The Looking Glass than its predecessor, the curious young protagonist has been refashioned into a post-pubescent young adult. In this guise her story becomes a simple coming-of-age tale about empowerment and responsibility.
Given this approach, a Jane Austen-lite framing story, in which Alice (Australian Mia Wasikowska, vash-ee-kov-ska) is the impending victim of an arranged marriage, works well enough. But as soon as she tumbles down the rabbit hole, she – and the audience – are thrown into a deliriously excessive 3D imagining of Wonderland.
The art direction and some of the effects are magnificent but, unlike Avatar, 3D was added after principal photography and it shows. The technology has not yet been refined, or at least implemented well, and Alice is an incomprehensible, haphazard mess.
Alice encounters all the usual suspects on her journey: the evaporative Cheshire cat, the wise Caterpillar, the waddling Tweedledee and Tweedledum and, ultimately, the nasty Jabberwocky. They are voiced by luminaries – and half the fun is guessing who is who – including Christopher Lee, Stephen Fry and Alan Rickman. Some of this is wackily amusing but the finale degenerates into a CGI battle that could have been pulled from any recent fantasy blockbuster.
The only unique element is Wasikowska as Alice who, behind her pale beauty and youth, belies an emotional strength otherwise absent from the film. Other than Bonham Carter’s scene stealing monarch, it’s only she that offers a lasting impression.