Monday 29 March 2010

Film review - Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland 3D, dir. Tim Burton, Walt Disney Pictures, cert. PG, on general release.

Alice in Wonderland feels like a film made by one of its own characters: amiably quirky, visually splendid and unusual, but characterised by naivety and some very eccentric choices. Oddest and most ill-advised of all of director Tim Burton’s decisions has to be his attempt to position the film as neither an adaptation nor continuation of Lewis Carroll’s Alice stories, but as an uneasy halfway house, a sequel that doesn’t know that it’s a sequel. The adventures from Carroll’s books are dismissed in the opening scenes of the film as nightmares experienced by the young Alice. Then sixteen years later, running away from her engagement party, she finds herself once again in Wonderland. We’re then treated to a mix of scenes straight from the original (the whole drink me/eat me episode is lifted more or less directly from the page) and a new plot based around Carroll’s nonsense poem Jaberwocky. It makes for a bit of a mess, and the resulting structure is lacking in any tension whatsoever; we have ninety minutes of being asked ‘Can Alice rise to the challenge’ and ‘Were those dreams real?’ before we discover – who’d have thought it? - that yes, Alice can rise to the challenge and those dreams were real after all.

Coupled with this narrative tedium is the unfortunate truth that this Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is simply not an interesting character. Actually, simply is the operative word, since in an effort to preserve the naive curiosity of Carroll’s books, Burton has created a 19-year-old character who acts with the intelligence of a slow 10-year-old. When her mother complains of having only white flowers, Alice’s suggestion that she paint them red is meant to be a charming reference to the Queen of Hearts doing just this in the source material, but instead it just hints at a troubling history of mental retardation. Consequently, it’s hard to really care about her predictable journey of self-discovery.

The supporting cast, made up of all the British voices you’d expect plus Burton stalwarts Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, does fairly well – Stephen Fry is a particularly good Cheshire Cat – but tends toward the self-consciously wacky rather than the actually funny. Depp’s Mad Hatter, for example, switches into an aggressive Scottish accent whenever he gets excited; it’s another odd character choice that doesn’t really pay off.

There’s some excellent CG work, and much of Wonderland (or Underland, as it’s rechristened in the film for no comic or thematic reason) looks great – vivid, wonderfully detailed and magical. The 3D is also managed skilfully, assuming the rather flat opening scenes are an attempt to create a Wizard of Oz style lift once it all turns fantastical. Which just goes to underline how close this came to being a rather good film.

VERDICT: A beautiful but messy film that might make for a diverting afternoon for the kids, but fails to satisfy.

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