In Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, up is down and down is up in a satirical inversion of the real world, of literature, of maths and puzzles. In a suitably Carrollian scenario, I’ve found myself agreeing with the point of view of a right-wing columnist in the Mail on Sunday whose work I normally despise. In Peter Hitchens’s one-paragraph dismissal of Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, he wrote: ‘We live in the age of deconstruction and the post-modern. Burton… appears to have turned [Alice] into Willy Wonka meets Lord of the Rings.’ Unfortunately I think he’s right, and Disney’s new live action adaptation may come as a surprise to audiences familiar with the studio’s 1951 animated version of the story. This is not to say that Tim Burton’s made a bad film, more that this is a missed opportunity.
This new adaptation is both a reimagining of, and sequel to, the Alice novels. I suppose audiences shouldn’t be too surprised that this is a film aimed at older audiences than the single-digit ages the original Disney Alice was made for, as even Burton’s most child-friendly films as director/producer - Pee-wee’s Big Adventure, The Nightmare before Christmas, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - had a level of darkness and subversion to them. However, the delight in whimsy, ideas and neologisms that typifies both the original novels and the Disney cartoon only appears infrequently here, which is a shame because the parts of the film that are faithful to the original story show that Burton could have made the definitive live action version. The Alice adaptation everyone was expecting in the 00s was an even darker sequel based on the computer game American McGee’s Alice - to have been scored by the likes of Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson and directed by Wes Craven. Burton’s Alice is halfway between American McGee’s Alice and Disney’s original. It’s aimed at teens rather than tweens, and it features an early scene showing Alice gored by a razor-mouthed and clawed Bandersnatch, which has an eye plucked out by a mouse wielding a rapier.
While fans of Disney’s original Alice may be dismayed by this Fighting Fantasy approach to the material there are still plenty of lines of dialogue from the original intact and the CGI rendering of anthropomorphic animals - talking horses, frogs and dogs - is the most impressive I’ve seen on screen so far - although bizarrely the CGI rendering of humans on horseback looks like the jerky movements of marionettes, which makes you wonder why they didn’t use real stuntmen. The technical necessities of converting the film into 3D mean there is a lush primary-coloured hue to many of the characters and scenes - except when Burton goes into goth mode and juxtaposes the familiar characters with dark, monochromic backgrounds. However, many scenes have an incongruous roaming camera designed to accentuate the 3D thrills of the cinematic presentation and the conversion into 3D has necessitated the blurring of backgrounds, limiting the tools of wide-angle lenses and long-shots available to the cinematographer. In terms of sets, costumes and characters, Alice is a more rewarding film than the recent Avatar, where the incomprehensible budget was tempered by the very average imagination and plot. Alice, of course, even when made needlessly dark for this adaptation, is fuelled by one of the most outlandish imagination in Victorian fiction and it’s terrific to see this rendered by the latest technology on the highest resolution - IMAX - format possible.
The greatest strength of the film is the acting, with Alan Rickman voicing a louche Blue Caterpillar in the centre of a terrific British-centric cast that includes Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Paul Whitehouse, Timothy Spall and Burton favourite Christopher Lee as the voice of the Jabberwocky. While Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are reasonably entertaining, though perhaps becoming over-familiar and overused in Burton’s films, Mia Wasikowska is a terrific adult Alice, a rebellious debutante and ingénue who becomes a thoughtful woman and reluctant warrior over the course of the film. With such performances, it’s noticeable that the scenes centred around humans - the awful pomp and ceremony of a 19th-century engagement party at the beginning, the hilarious prosthetic-wearing retinue of the Red Queen - are actually some of the best in the film. In contrast, the sword and sorcery subplot shoehorned into the narrative sits uneasily with the original characters.
This a film of various beginnings - Carroll, Disney, 21st-century computer games - and endings - an armour-clad Alice in a dark wasteland fighting a Jabberwocky only marginally less scary than Terry Gilliam’s and an invigorated Alice back in the real world, making the most of the British Empire. The first ending closes a world I wouldn’t particularly want to return to, the other one opens possibilities I’d be happy to see Burton explore further…