Director Tim Burton might, at first, appear to be the ideal guide to the fantasy land described by Lewis Carroll in Alice In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. Certainly, his unique brand of Technicolor gothic feels native to this bizarre place (ditto Johnny Depp's Hatter) and the sheer density of the imagery and use of 3D does make it feel as if the enchanted forest might just swallow you up. But you might also feel you cannot see the forest for the trees because being constantly bombarded with sparkly CGI means less room to appreciate the heart's journey.
Up-and-comer Mia Wasikowska has an ethereal air about her as the 19-year-old Alice, wafting about the hedgerows of a plush estate like some sort of Victorian garden fairy. What grounds her is a combo of childlike naiveté and bloody-mindedness, which allow her to publicly refuse the marriage proposal of a fusty young aristocrat (Leo Bill). That's an add-on to the original story, underlining Alice's rebel spirit, though with the incongruous echo of a Jane Austen adaptation. Of course the story doesn't begin in earnest until Alice catches sight of The White Rabbit (a creepy critter voiced by Michael Sheen) and falls down the rabbit hole.
It's a stunning descent. Unlike many recent 3D offerings, Burton shakes out the layers of a rich visual fabric and practically hits you in the face with it. There's also a hark back to the famous colour-switch in The Wizard Of Oz after Alice drinks and eats herself to just the right size and passes through the door into Underland - except this world is distinctly gloomy. That's due in part to the tyrannical rule of The Red Queen. Helena Bonham Carter (ubiquitous in partner Burton's films) is hysterically brilliant, tottering about with an ungodly large head, acting like a spoilt child; a bit like Miranda Richardson's Queenie in Blackadder crossed with a giant red ant. She has it in for Alice because she's famed in prophecy as Underland's saviour.
According to this ancient lore, Alice must do battle with the Jabberwocky, a dragon-like creature which, though a Carroll creation, is reassigned by Burton to give Alice a film-friendly quest. Likewise, The Mad Hatter becomes an aid in the mission, rather than simply a raving, tea-swilling loon. It's arguably Depp's weirdest role to date and, through no fault of his own, not his most endearing. His eyes, made to look like bright green saucers, will surely haunt the dreams of little children. Like his Willy Wonka, there is a softer side to the character, but in the end, the Hatter is just too outwardly brash for us to appreciate the inner-turmoil. That quirky cool extends to Anne Hathaway who does a woozy, overly-gesticulating turn as The White Queen.
Thankfully, there is affection for Carroll's story in other parts. Matt Lucas is an oddly comforting presence as Tweedledum and Tweedledee whilst Stephen Fry is naturally warm and worldly as the Cheshire Cat. Though villainous, Crispin Glover (aka George McFly) actually draws sympathy for his plight as a knave squashed beneath The Red Queen's thumb. However, it's Alice and the way she fluctuates between big and small (reflecting the awkward process of growing up) which should give the film its backbone. Instead, the manipulation of the source material - though intended to iron out the surrealist logic - actually reduces Alice to something soft and conventional. The similarly themed Pan's Labyrinth (2006) was much more radical and emotive because Guillermo del Toro didn't feel the need to spoon-feed his audience. Of course, kids will drool at Burton's spectacle - grown-ups too - but they might also find this isn't the nostalgia trip they hoped for. Where's the bottle marked 'Feel Me'?
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