The first thing you need to know about Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is that despite its title implying that it is a new adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s much-loved 19th century novels Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass, it is in fact a sequel. In Burton’s film Alice is now a 19-year-old girl who has forgotten about her childhood journey into Underland (she misheard it as ‘Wonderland’) and once more takes a trip down the rabbit-hole after ducking out on an engagement proposal that has been carefully arranged for her. Having now returned to the magical world that she thought was something she dreamt, Alice is given the mission of saving the Underland inhabitants from the tyrannical rule of the Red Queen. Such a film really should have instead be called something like Return to Wonderland or Wonderland III: Wonder Harder.
The main problem with Burton’s film is that there is too much story when there should have been very little. While Carroll’s original novels and most other adaptations were absurdist, fragmented stories with Alice encountering one strange situation after another, Burton’s film introduces the majority of the characters within the first 10 minutes of Alice arriving in Underland. Burton has assumed, maybe correctly, that characters such as the Mad Hatter, the Cheshire Cat and Tweedledee and Tweedledum are iconic enough to not warrant separate introductions but the joy of Lewis’s novels is Alice’s progression from one character to another.
Burton’s film resembles fan-fiction where Alice, with the help of her Underland friends, is sent on a quest that involves finding her inner strength. The result feels like a mash up of The Wizard of Oz and The Lord of the Rings, which may have been OK if it didn’t feel so out of synch with the original spirit of Carroll’s novels.
Australian actor Mia Wasikowska does a decent job at embodying Burton’s classic outsider/loner persona in the character of Alice. However, despite the film depicting her imagination and freewill as being under threat by the social conventions of Victorian society, by fulfilling a pre-ordained in Underland she is simply playing yet another role that she didn’t choose herself.
Johnny Depp is enjoyable as always but on complete autopilot as The Mad Hatter flickering between the manic, dark and vulnerable states that he has perfected from working with Burton for so long. Likewise, Burton’s other regular performer (and wife) Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen simply feels like a lesser version of Queen ‘Queenie’ Elizabeth I from Blackadder II.
Nevertheless, to dismiss Burton’s Alice in Wonderland altogether would do a considerable disservice to the remarkable visual achievements that makes such a film still worth seeing on the big screen despite all its faults. The moment when Alice does fall down the rabbit-hole and then emerge into Underland is glorious with Danny Elfman’s distinct score resonating on the soundtrack and Burton’s surreal gothic sensibility in full force, combining the aesthetics that audiences have come to love from films such as Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow and Big Fish. The narrative may be forced and uninteresting but the combination of costuming, art direction, production design and cinematography compensate. You’re not going to lose yourself in the story or the characters but visually Alice in Wonderland is a series of moving artworks that are a joy to gaze upon despite lacking any depth, even in 3D.