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

A curiously conventional journey to Wonderland

Geoffrey Macnab@TheIndyFilm
Friday 26 February 2010 01:00

"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

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