Burton & Depp's cult of weird springs out from the rabbit hole
The latest Tim Burton and Johnny Depp collaboration, Alice in Wonderland, is in UK cinemas now. This event release, Disney-backed, follow-up to Sweeney Todd is a wonderful spectacle and won’t disappoint either hardcore fans of the pair’s work or novices to their quirky-goth oeuvre.
It was a good move to cast a relative newcomer as Alice Kingsley. We are so familiar with the character that she needs to fit a particular mould. Alice is an iconic figure, in need of a Alician ‘muchness’-willful spunk, wide-eyed curiosity - and a big celebrity name might have had too much distracting baggage. The film, as in Lewis Carroll’s source text, belongs to Alice the character, and not some marquee name playing Alice.
Mia Wasikowska definitely looks the part as Alice; she has a wide-eyed, urchin like appearance and, crucially for the premise of this film (Alice 15 years from when we knew her last) her physique and physiognomy speak of an edge-of-adulthood innocence. Hers is an undoubtedly beautiful, expressive face and she is a convincing lead. Her delivery is perhaps a bit mannered, but she moves as beautifully as you’d expect of a former dancer through Burton’s re-imagined Wonderland. Wasikowska, her pallor enhanced with make-up, also looks suitably haunted for someone dogged by nightmares of deranged milliners and opiated caterpillars for 15 years.
A big selling point for this film is the opportunity to experience Tim Burton’s always elaborate cinematic vision in an extra dimension. 3D films are the big buzz in 2010.
The 3D doesn’t work so well in the ‘real’ world, before Alice tumbles down the rabbit hole. There are a lot of marks being very noticeably hit, extras being stationed at the front of the shot so they jump out at you. It feels contrived.
However, we soon find ourselves in Wonderland and it is here that the RealD 3D effect comes into its own. Wonderland has real depth, the 3rd dimension stops being a gimmick and transports the reader, with Alice into this strange, discombobulating but oddly familiar terrain. The proof of your immersion in the film will come when, like me, you duck under branches or wait for dewdrops to splash refreshingly on your face. Your eyes and brain adjust quickly to the effect and it becomes less of a cool distraction and more of an integral part of the experience, particularly if you get to the cinema in time for the special 3D trailers (for me, How to Train Your Dragon and Iron Man 2 among others).
So to Johnny Depp’s Hatter. Depp turns in an intelligent,textured, sympathetic performance. The Mad Hatter is not the sideshow you’ll remember from other adaptations; in this film his peculiar disposition is oddly affecting. Depp’s Hatter is at times genuinely troubled, visibly reigning in the madness.
Depp has unfortunately fallen foul in recent times of the mainstream stardom he has avoided for so many years, and his Heat magazine worthiness will perhaps see this remarkable performance glossed over and under-appreciated. I could, for example, have done without the tweenage Depp acolytes cooing and giggling throughout; this is not a zany rehash of his Cap’n Jack Pirates of the Caribbean silliness, or the poorly judged, full-on idiocy of Willy Wonka, but something more complex (though he does do a fine line in comedy running). Depp is a tremendous, dangerous versatile performer, and its good to see him back on top, weird form after the deeply disappointing ‘Public Enemies’.
Anne Hathaway (often underestimated) has a reasonably small part as the White Queen, but she breathes life into what begins as an uncanny impersonation of domestic sexpot Nigella Lawson and threatens to steal the show with her funny, floaty portrayal of the deposed monarch with a sensitive gag reflex.
He will make better films, but as a visual spectacle, Alice in Wonderland is surely Burton’s magnum opus. His Wonderland is an incredibly well-realised world, you will notice (or fail to notice) the seamlessness of the properly incredible effects as nothing ‘false’ clashes or jars with the unaugemented characters. Burton’s vision is so complete that the heavily-stylised kingdoms of the two fueding queens feel completely natural.
For a re-imagining this film is remarkably faithful to the tone of Carroll’s Alice stories, and the portrayal and depiction of famous characters won’t offend lovers of the books. This can be put down to the cavalcade of British national treasures that populate the film- Michael Sheen, Babs Windsor, Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, Paul Whitehouse, Tim Spall, Matt Lucas and Christopher Lee all feature (fairly brilliantly) in prominent roles- and the fact that Burton lives in England with his wife Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the Red Queen with a laudable lack of vanity.
Alice in Wonderland is not as dark as we’ve seen from Burton, but hasn’t his twisted gothicism always been touched by the clownish and cartoonish? His films are often grotesque but rarely horrifying, and Alice in Wonderland is ugly, beautiful, sweet, cynical and indisputably magical.