These days, the most exciting part of any Hollywood blockbuster is the moment when the first stills are released.
The teaser images of Tim Burton's 3D Alice in Wonderland were really something, and pure Burton: dual versions, seemingly moulded from dough, of Matt Lucas as Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen with scarlet hair, cupid's-bow lips and a huge bulbous head.
Such images are a lot to live up to and this Disney-produced Alice, alas, doesn't succeed. Once you've seen the pictures, you've pretty much seen the best of Alice apart from the Bandersnatch, a ravening, barrel-bodied hyena that's an example of the film's ability to merge CGI illusion with a hand-crafted cartoon quality.
Purists beware: this is not a straight adaptation but a sort of Return to Wonderland, in which a grown-up Alice revisits the haunt of her childhood dreams. It begins with Alice as a nightmare-afflicted child telling her father that she fears she's mad. "You're mad, bonkers, round the bend ... all the best people are," says Papa, in an example of unusually, indeed radically, tolerant Victorian parenting. Thirteen years later, Alice is played by Mia Wasikowska as a bloodlessly blonde waif, halfway to being another Burton Corpse Bride. Alice attends a garden party, accompanied by her rather less indulgent mother, played by Lindsay Duncan ("To me, a corset is like a codfish," says Alice. "Please," sighs Mama, "not today".). Facing marriage to an aristo- cratic bore, Alice escapes down a rabbit hole that here becomes a dark vortex of 3D debris.
Instead of the sedate bucolic Alice of tradition, this version is seemingly set in Hell. Johnny Depp's Hatter now installs his tea-table in a Dali wasteland, he and his guests not so much mad as profoundly traumatised. Under the Red Queen's dominion, darkness and decapitation hold sway until the foretold day when a Champion will wield the vorpal sword and slay the Jabberwocky (sic – just plain Jabberwock, surely?). This is a post-lapsarian Wonderland (or rather, Underland – Alice simply got the name wrong), a blasted place out of Bosch and Peter Jackson's Middle Earth, where savage beasts rampage through mushroom jungles, as if Burton had injected a hefty dose of bad acid into the Avatar forest.
This is all to be expected from the director who practically invented the tiresome convention whereby Hollywood children's films must be "dark". But there's little of the joy or perversity that you expect from Burton. As re-imagined by writer Linda Woolverton, this is a strictly template narrative in which a prophesied champion must redeem a fallen land. Alice, destined to don Maid of Orleans armour, is another Chosen One, like Harry Potter, Neo in The Matrix, the kids in Narnia. The quest logic entirely replaces Lewis Carroll's (il)logic of language: all we get is an action adventure in which obstacles must be overcome, environments moved through, and the Next Level attained. This is less a film than an extended ad for the Alice computer game (now available for your Nintendo Wii).
Making Alice a 19-year-old is an odd decision: perhaps Disney execs feared that the Carroll legacy was uncomfortably tainted with paedophilic overtones. In fact, the film tries to have it both ways by giving us an adult Alice who's eerily desexualised, yet flits around in diaphanous off-the-shoulder numbers (at one point losing her dress entirely), and who is creepily slavered over by Crispin Glover's Knave of Hearts ("I like largeness!").
The feminist revisionism is clunky and very American. "This is my dream," Alice declares, "I'll decide where it goes from here" – which sounds less like a statement of empowerment than like a virtual-world gamer insisting on the right to plot her own interactive narrative.
Many false notes will grate equally with Carrollites and Burtonians: the introduction of cute character names (Iracebeth, Mallyumkin, McTwisp); the kitsch faery mansion of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), an ethereal palace of pallor seemingly left over from the second Star Wars trilogy; a Jabberwock(y) who speaks with the voice of Christopher Lee; Avril Lavigne's screechy end-credits song; and the Hatter's concluding celebratory breakdance to funky organ backing (please, save that kind of thing for Shrek).
There are some human touches in this joyless mess, mainly in the British voice casting – Stephen Fry's suave Cheshire Cat, Alan Rickman's opiated decadent of a Caterpillar, Paul Whitehouse's March Hare, a John Laurie-style Scot. But Depp's Hatter – with digitally enlarged eyes, a near-relative of his oddly feminised Willie Wonka – is one of the star's less inspired turns, Burton dreadfully indulging his wayward goofiness. It's left to Bonham Carter to shine with her megacephalic mannequin, a murderously petulant sister to Miranda Richardson's Queen Bess in Blackadder: "I love my fat boys," she simpers over Tweedledum and Tweedledee, "Now get out!"
I'd happily look at an exhibition of the visuals lushly conceived by Burton and a team that includes production designer Rob Stromberg and costumer Colleen Atwood: notably, the Red Queen's castle (shades of Arthur Rackham and Mervyn Peake) and a playing-card army with a distinct touch of samurai (Kurosawa and Kurosawa, you might say ... ). Otherwise, this Alice comes across as cynical, mechanical Disney product – its most impersonal film since Planet of the Apes. Frabjous it ain't.
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