'Curiouser and curiouser' - fitting words to describe the Disney company's latest foray through the looking glass with director Tim Burton's re-envisioned Alice in Wonderland (2010); an even more obtuse claptrap than its Disney-fied predecessor from 1951. In truth, author Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel (more about poking fun at British parliament and aristocracy than a children's book) is a series of quaintly bizarre vignettes that, in retrospect, greatly influenced all fantasy literary that was to follow. And although Burton's ambitiously mounted film, curtly scripted by Linda Woolverton, does have its moments, it still pales to the superbly cast, all star comprehensive television adaptation from 1985.
What we get on this outing is a more mature Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) taking valiant strides to make sense of it all. As a child, Alice's 'dreams' of Wonderland have led to many a sleepless night. The net result is a careworn and sleep deprived teenager with circles under her eyes, about to be forced into marriage to Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill) the ineffectual and physically repugnant son of a Lord who has taken over the business holdings of Alice's late father. After walking out on Hamish's very public proposal of marriage, Alice follows Niven McTwist, a.k.a. the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) down a deep hole into 'Underland' where everything is topsy-turvy.
Alice is introduced to Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both CGI creations voiced by Matt Lucas) who drag our heroine past a gaggle of talking flowers to the mushroom court presided over by Absolem, the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman). This hookah smoking insect declares that Alice is not 'hardly' herself yet. Their meeting is interrupted by the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), commanding a regiment of playing cards and the Bandersnatch - an albino beast. The Bandersnatch attacks Alice but is thwarted from devouring her whole by Mallymkun, the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), who plucks out its eye with a stick pin.
From here the narrative moves to the court of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), intermittently referred to as The Queen of Hearts even though the Red Queen and The Queen of Hearts are two very separate and distinct characters in the Lewis Carroll novels. The Red Queen is an impatient harpy, bitterly entertaining romantic notions with the Knave while declaring to him that Alice must not be allowed to slay The Jabberwocky - a conquest foretold.
Meanwhile, Alice has stumbled into the charred remains of The Mad Hatter's residence. The Hatter (Johnny Depp) becomes Alice's protector and is captured by the Knave for his efforts. Taken to the Red Queen's court, the Hatter attempts to deflect her dismay from Alice, who has arrived to rescue the Hatter disguised as 'Um'. The Knave flirts with Alice/Um and is spurned by her. Meanwhile, Alice learns that the Vorpal Sword - the only weapon capable of killing the Jabberwocky - is inside the Red Queen's palace, guarded by the one-eyed Bandersnatch.
In a trade, Alice restores the Bandersnatch's eye and is granted access to the sword. The Red Queen's sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) encourages Alice to be her champion and slay the Jabberwocky; thereby restoring her to the throne of Underland. Alice reluctantly agrees and indeed kills the towering dragon-like beast in an epic battle entirely envisioned in CGI.
As her reward, Alice is restored to her own world where she refuses Hamish and takes control of her own life. Impressed by her assertive nature, Hamish's father appoints Alice to a prestigious post within her late father's shipping company. In the final moments of the film, Alice embarks on a clipper bound for the Orient with Absolem - now a butterfly - making the journey with her. Thus, ends this reincarnation of Alice In Wonderland.
Lewis Carroll's original novel is actually titled, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, though none of the filmic versions have ever appeared as such. This version of Alice is by far the most financially successful adaptation - ranking as the fifth most profitable movie of all time. However, a large portion of that success must go to the film's well timed release that has heavily capitalized on the latest craze for 3D movies.
Yet, as pure storytelling Tim Burton's vision falls considerably shy of becoming a classic in its own right. What is particularly disheartening is the excision of many of Carroll's creations and subplots in favour of Burton and Wooverton's zeal to craft a narrative favouring cinema chameleon, Johnny Depp. To be certain, Depp proves worthy to the task, delivering yet another bizarrely compelling performance that ranks him among the most talented of contemporary stars. In fact, the chief problem with this film cannot be blamed on casting at all.
Mia Wasikowska is a poignant and engaging Alice, moving through the digitized scenery as a young Gwyneth Paltrow might, with an uncanny resemblance in both physicality and mannerisms to Paltrow herself. Helena Bonham Carter is richly rewarding to behold as the villainous Red Queen. Yet, like all versions of Alice that have gone before this one, the tone of this piece seems to lack an overriding arch of personal investment in these characters. They remain cut outs, cartoonish and one dimensional, barely breaking through to a level of distinction.
This Alice in Wonderland had a flawed incubation. Originally slated for 2009 release, the shooting schedule did not get underway until Sept. 08; a full four months delayed. With exception of early footage shot at Antony House in Torpoint, 90% of the film is photographed green screen with CGI effects supplied by Sony Pictures Imageworks. Reportedly, Burton shot, then scrapped a fair amount of footage in his reshoot, opting to photograph the film with standard cameras in 2D and then convert the footage to 3D in post production - a practise publicly maligned by director James Cameron.
For all its innovative camera work, Alice In Wonderland is a stylish footnote in the realms of cinema art. It neither enchants nor encapsulates the audience with its bizarre artistic melange. It merely exists as a rudimentary exercise in CGI technology with competent performances thrown in for good measure.
Walt Disney Home Video's Blu-Ray/DVD/Digital Copy combo pack offers three different ways to enjoy the film. For the purposes of this review, only the Blu-Ray version is critiqued herein. This is NOT the 3D version of the film, but its 2D rendering. The image exhibits a stylized color palette, meticulously realized. Colors are bold, rich and vibrant. Fine detail is evident throughout. Contrast levels - artificially elevated as in the original theatrical release - retain their stark grandeur. A minute amount of edge enhancement exists but does not distract.
The audio is Disney's usual 7.1 lossless mix. Yet, occasionally dialogue seems inaudible.
Extras include a litany of featurettes on the making of the film in which principle actors and Burton discuss their involvement on the project and wax affectionately and self congratulatory about one another's performances.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)