First Night: Alice in Wonderland, Odeon Leicester Square, London

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

A curiously conventional journey to Wonderland

"You're mad, bonkers... but I'll tell you a secret – all the best people are." This line early on in Tim Burton's
Alice in Wonderland expresses perfectly what seems to be the director's guiding philosophy. The only problem is that his Hollywood paymasters aren't quite as subversive as he is. The result here is a wildly inventive film straitjacketed in conventional narrative form.

This version of Alice, scripted by Linda Woolverton, takes Lewis Carroll's young heroine and turns her into a beautiful 19-year-old girl. Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is about to be forced into an arranged marriage with a priggish, nose-picking English toff called Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill). Given the formalities and hypocrisy in the Victorian England depicted at the start of the film, it's little wonder that Alice is so eager to fall down the rabbit hole.

Burton's Wonderland is not cosy in the slightest. It's a gothic netherworld inhabited by shape-shifting and threatening creatures. Initially, at least, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), with his clown face and shock of orange hair, seems genuinely deranged. Tweedledum and Tweedledee (delightfully played by Matt Lucas) look as if they might have slipped out of some avant-garde Czech cartoon. The visual style, pitched somewhere between animation and live action, is both creepy and ingenious. The Red Queen as played by Helena Bonham Carter has a level of malice and megalomania that evokes memories of Bette Davis in her pomp... or, at least, of Miranda Richardson in Blackadder. The milieu here is closer to that of Burton's Batman films than to Lewis Carroll as traditionally depicted on screen. As Alice (gamely played by Wasikowska) changes size, there is a hallucinatory quality to the storytelling. Composer Danny Elfman has written a dark, dramatic score that adds to the surprising sense of menace.

The grotesquerie of the characters and creatures we encounter in Wonderland is matched by that of the Victorians we see at the beginning and end of the film. Frances de la Tour's Aunt Imogene, pining away for an imaginary prince, is like a crinolined version of her Miss Jones in Rising Damp.

The disappointment is that Burton's visual firepower and vivid characterisation is being used in the service of a narrative that grows increasingly one-dimensional and simple-minded. By the final showdown, we could be back in the world of Oz or in the latest Narnia adventure. Alice is the brave heroine a long way from home who has to vanquish the wicked witch (or, at least, the Red Queen). Admittedly, the White Queen (played in engagingly fey, oddball fashion by Anne Hathaway) is a long way removed from the traditional fairy godmother.

It is instructive to watch how Depp's Mad Hatter evolves. When first seen, he has a manic edge. Gradually, in spite of sporting a sporran and speaking briefly in a guttural Scottish accent, he becomes more sympathetic. This is a Disney film, after all, and the studio clearly doesn't want the world's most popular movie star to frighten the kids too much.

Burton's use of 3D is a little half-hearted. Just occasionally, characters or creatures look as if they're about to burst out of the screen. However, the real artistry here is in the costumes, production design and characterisation. Burton makes excellent use of a gallery of distinctive-voiced British actors (everybody from Christopher Lee as the ferocious Jabberwock to Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar and Barbara Windsor as the Dormouse). There is a strain of very British deadpan humour here that complements the flamboyant visual effects. The only pity is that Burton's foray to Wonderland is ultimately not as deliriously unfettered as it originally promised to be.

Through the looking glass: Alice in art and film

The eccentric characters and vivid world of Lewis Carroll's original tale have proved irresistible to illustrators and filmmakers alike. The earliest and arguably most influential depiction of Alice came from the hand of Sir John Tenniel, who was commissioned by Carroll to produce 42 illustrations for the first edition in 1865.

Sir John took so long over his work that the book's publication was delayed, but Carroll was more than satisfied and soon asked him to illustrate the sequel, Through the Looking-Glass. Sir John worked mainly from memory, and when the author suggested he use a model to help him draw Alice, he replied tartly that "he no more needed one than [Carroll, in real life the Oxford mathematician Charles Dodgson] should need a multiplication-table to work out a mathematical problem".

David Lockwood, the author of a forthcoming book about Alice's illustrators, said Carroll had already illustrated an early version of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland himself, but enlisted the professional artist's help for the version known today.

"Lewis Carroll was probably largely responsible for the content of the images, and Tenniel provided the technical skill that Carroll lacked," he said. "Moreover, the majority of subsequent illustrators have taken Tenniel as their starting point, and he has also had a significant influence on the many film versions."

He added that the book was "probably the most illustrated of all time", with 15 different editions being published in the UK and US in the last year alone.

In 1903, only 37 years after the book was published – and just eight years after the invention of the first portable motion-picture camera by the Frenchman Louis Lumière – a silent film based on Sir John's illustrations was made. It was directed by Cecil Hepworth and Percy Stow, and had a running time of 12 minutes, making it, at the time, the longest film ever to have been produced in England.

The grainy black-and-white recording might not be as visually stunning as Tim Burton's lavish new version, but the two films do share one similarity: Hepworth cast his wife as the Red Queen, a role played in Burton's film by his partner, Helena Bonham Carter.

"I can think of no novel that children read which has such rich, imaginative and magical language," said Robin Baker, head curator of the British Film Institute's national archive, which recently restored the 1903 film. "It's a fantastic source for filmmakers, because it allows you to create such intense images, conjuring them from Carroll's language, and imagine your own Wonderland."

In 1933, Paramount Pictures released an all-star version of the story, with Charlotte Henry as Alice, Cary Grant as the Mock Turtle and Gary Cooper as the White Knight.

Another famous film depiction was Disney's 1951 animated movie, where Alice is portrayed as a blonde-haired, blue-eyed All-American girl voiced by Kathryn Beaumont, who would later play Wendy in the studio's animated version of Peter Pan.

"I think it's Wonderland itself which changes so dramatically depending on the filmmaker," Baker said. "In the original Disney film it is an incredibly sweet, slightly saccharine place where people sing rather coy songs about flowers – whereas in other versions it is much darker, and perhaps closer to Carroll's original vision."

Chris Green

Arts and Entertainment
'Silent Night' last topped Classic FM's favourite Christmas carol poll in 2002
Arts and Entertainment
Caroline Flack became the tenth winner of Strictly Come Dancing
tvReview: 'Absolutely phenomenal' Xtra Factor presenter wins Strictly Come Dancing final
Arts and Entertainment
J Jefferson Farjeon at home in 1953
booksBooksellers say readers are turning away from modern thrillers and back to golden age of crime writing
Arts and Entertainment
Female fans want more explicit male sex in Game of Thrones, George R R Martin says

film George RR Martin owns a cinema in Santa Fe

Arts and Entertainment
Clued up: John Lynch and Gillian Anderson in ‘The Fall’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Rhys says: 'I'm not playing it for laughs, but I have learnt that if you fall over on stage, people can enjoy that as much as an amazing guitar solo'
musicGruff Rhys on his rock odyssey, and the trouble with independence
Arts and Entertainment
Krysia and Daniel (Hand out press photograph provided by Sally Richardson)
How do today's composers answer the challenge of the classical giant?
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Shenaz Treasurywala
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Watkins as Christopher Jefferies
Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars Director JJ Abrams: key character's names have been revealed
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams won two BBC Music Awards for Best Song and International Artist
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump


Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all
    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    The week Hollywood got scared and had to grow up a bit

    Sony suffered a chorus of disapproval after it withdrew 'The Interview', but it's not too late for it to take a stand, says Joan Smith
    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?

    Panto dames: before and after

    From Widow Twankey to Mother Goose, how do the men who play panto dames get themselves ready for the performance of a lifetime?
    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Thirties murder mystery novel is surprise runaway Christmas hit

    Booksellers say readers are turning away from dark modern thrillers and back to the golden age of crime writing
    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best,' says founder of JustGiving

    Anne-Marie Huby: 'Charities deserve the best'

    Ten million of us have used the JustGiving website to donate to good causes. Its co-founder says that being dynamic is as important as being kind
    The botanist who hunts for giant trees at Kew Gardens

    The man who hunts giants

    A Kew Gardens botanist has found 25 new large tree species - and he's sure there are more out there