When Charles Dodgson penned his novel ‘Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland’ in 1865, it’s unlikely he would have forseen the considerable fascination the world would eventually have with “tumbling down the rabbit hole”. Released under his pseudonym of ‘Lewis Carroll’, tides of work influenced by his unpredictable fantasy have flooded the world since the books publication. Permeating it’s influence into nearly every conceivable medium, Alice’s adventure has seeped into everything from Disney adaptations to television references (from Lost to Skins), as well as artwork inspiring numerous re-tellings (Alice in Manchester anyone?) and influencing everything from The Matrix to songs like Jefferson Airplane’s 1967 track White Rabbit.
The sixties, however, are dead and gone and anyone expecting an offering from Edward Scissorhands director Tim Burton to be steeped in the traditional sort of LSD-infused psychedelia that is so synonymous with Caroll’s tale is kidding themselves. Imbued with subtle veins of Burton’s typically ghoulish direction, this fresh imagining of Alice in Wonderland is laced with the sort of pale-faced gothic grandeur we’ve come to expect from this particular lord of the lurid. Pushing the loose narrative structure of Caroll’s original tale into a traditional story-arc mould, Burton seems intent on twisting this Victorian novel into a more palletable, structured affair. The adoption of such a linear story-arc is a considerable risk on Burton’s part; manhandling a adulated classic with such brash intentions often leaves a director open for a veritable critical shitstorm, but Burton seems to carry it off with his usually black-hearted aplomb…well…nearly.
Calling upon regular collaborators Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp, Burton re-imagines a Wonderland 13 years on from Caroll’s original tale and, true to form, creates the considerably murkier ‘Underland’. Essentially the charred bones of Wonderland, Underland is left burned out and crippled by the tyrannous rule of Bonham Carter’s rapacious Red Queen. Whilst for many, the thought of Burton, Bonham-Carter and Depp collaborating has become a simple, run-of-the-mill occurrence, the trio work in such natural synthesis that it’s surprising they ever work apart. In fact, many of the film’s more memorable moments involve reckless bursts of odd, frenetic mental sparring between Depp’s wonderfully eccentric Hatter and Bonham-Carter’s Queen.
From the vivid, bizarre garb of Underland’s humans to the immaculate detail of it’s anthropomorphic residents Burton seems to really be basking in the way recent technological advances can bring his visions to the silver screen with such clarity and depth. Every scene and every costume holds the sort of meticulous detail and intricate styling that most have come to expect from his visions; from the stunning architecture of the Red Queen’s palace to the frayed mania of the Mad Hatter’s tea party, the film’s aesthetics are stunning. It’s not all doom and gloom in Underland though, there are vibrant splashes of deep, affecting colour, and whilst the film undeniably has veins of Burton’s macabre visual sensibilities, they are fewer and further apart than you’d expect. Shades of the sinister sit between veins of slapstick and patches of harmless nonsense; not an uncomfortable juxtaposition, but you can’t help but wonder if the film’s tone would’ve benefited from being allowed to revel in the sinister under a 15 or even 12A certification. Whether the film is intended for adults or children is a point for contention; grizzly nuances like stepping stones made of severed heads say the former, whilst Depp’s stultifyingly cringeworthy ‘Futterwacking’ dance (presumably Underland-ish for ‘tacked on laugh for kids’) seems to indicate the latter.
Bolstered by tight performances from much of it’s stellar array of vocal and acting talent, the majority of Alice In Wonderland becomes pleasingly “Curioser and curioser” with every passing scene. Mia Wasikowska’s Alice has enough doe-eyed presence to stay afloat amongst the swathes of digital imagery, and only when it’s final third veers foolishly into the sort of final-battle territory trodden flat by the most humdrum of CGI spewing action films does the film loose it’s footing amongst clashing swords and well-worn ideas.
Burton will inevitably come under fire for the liberties taken with Caroll’s folklore – combining elements from both the original book and it’s sequel Through The Looking Glass – but it should rather be observed that he has simply added his own page to Wonderland’s scriptures. Burton’s addition is incredibly engaging visually and ultimately a satisfying watch, even if ever so slightly it suffers from it’s linear path and sparse amount of thrills; perhaps lacking the dash of whimsy needed to pull the audience entirely down the rabbit hole.