Over the years Tim Burton has made movies that were, as the saying roughly goes, matches made in heaven. Exploring fairy tales in Big Fish, children's love of candy in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and, well, a vengeful, murdering barber in Sweeney Todd. But without a doubt the most perfect match to Burton's trademark distinctive visual style – the mix of the weird and the wonderful, whether clothed in darkness or lit up with bright colours – is Alice in Wonderland.
Adapted from the classic Lewis Carroll tale, but almost a sequel to it, Burton's film sees the titular Alice not visiting Wonderland for the first time but returning 13 years later at the age of 19. The trouble is, she doesn't remember it (or only has vague recollections she mistakes for a dream she had when she was younger). After running out on her boyfriend proposing in front of her entire family and friends at a high class party, she reaches down a hole only to fall down and land in the magical Wonderland.
Once there, Alice first meets the White Rabbit and then the rest of the familiar Wonderland characters including the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), the March Hare (voiced by Paul Whitehouse), the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) and, of course, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). Soon after arriving Alice learns of her true destiny: to end the reign of the horrid Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) to make sure her sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), can take her place on the throne.
Purists of the original Carroll story will probably be up in arms about the change Burton has made to the story. Instead of a little girl barely in primary school, Burton's Alice is almost 20 years old and already into adulthood. But from a story point of view it makes things a bit more interesting, or at least as interesting. This way we get the element of all the characters of Wonderland remembering Alice but her not remembering them. And since she's a lot older and she looks different, the characters then are left wondering if she is, indeed, the right Alice.
All the ingredients are here for a movie that should fit comfortably near the top of Burton's best work. The costumes are exquisite, the voice work (and voice casting) is outstanding, most of the performances are brilliant (Depp and Bonham Carter in particular) and visually it's a stunning film.
So why did I not feel a sense of childlike wonder throughout? Everything was there on the screen but the way it was handled left me rather cold. Even Burton's adaptation of Roald Dahl's Charlie and the Chocolate Factory had me transported back to my childhood, emulating the feeling I had seeing the original Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. But Alice in Wonderland feels a bit like Burton on autopilot, or as if he's gotten too comfortable painting his imagination on-screen that he forgot how to handle the story as well as he usually does.
The main issue was that we don't really get much time to just stop and take in, appreciate, marvel at (whatever you wanna' call it) the actual Wonderland (or Underland, as the character strangely call it) setting itself. Sure, there's a Wizard of Oz-esque moment when Alice first enters through a tiny door into the plush forest and we get a look at it in all its glory. But too soon the plot kicks in and form then on things feel rushed just to get the almost inevitable big battle climax.
Maybe it was to do with not being able to appreciate the setting around the characters or something else entirely but as I said I was left quite cold with the movie as a whole. It's one of those things I can't quite put my finger on but that's honestly how I felt once the credits starting rolling.
Part of the selling point of Alice in Wonderland is the fact that it's in "Disney Digital 3D." It's just part of a slew of 3D movies released and upcoming – the success of Avatar has made sure of that. But just like most 3D movies this is guilty of employing the technology in all the wrong ways. Instead of, like Avatar, using it to envelope and immerse the audience in the world at hand, it's just case of things flying out of the screen at you for no other reason than just to have that. Not only was it slightly annoying but often it was downright distracting, taking away from the story and the dialogue.
Speaking of dialogue, this is definitely one of the film's strongest points. For the most part – a few jokes and gags that fall flat aside – the dialogue is engaging and very funny. The Mad Hatter gets a lot of the best lines, delivered with a sort of insanity that's as saddening as it is funny and even uplifting. Depp is a master of his craft and this ranks right up there as one of his best. He channels Heath Ledger's Joker from The Dark Knight (only obviously with a lighter tone) and throws some of the attributes from his performance as Willy Wonka. There's no reason that Depp shouldn't get legitimate acting awards for his performance here.
The other stand-out performance comes from Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, who really gives her all in the role spouting "Off with their heads!" at every turn and providing an intimidating enough villain without being too scary for the kids. Mia Wasikowski is solid enough in the lead role though she almost seems like a generic character just used to interact with and showcase the uniqueness of Wonderland's characters.
Other notable performances (whether live-action or in voice only) include the always excellent Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, Paul Whitehouse as the March Hare (employing a hilarious Scottish accent) and Matt Lucas as both Tweedledum and Tweedledee. The way the latter speak to each other is one of the highlights of the entire movie (you'll know what I mean when you see them in the movie for yourself).
Overall Alice in Wonderland is a fairly enjoyable film but it doesn't live up to the hype and expectations that lead up to it. The story puts an interesting twist on the classic tale, the voice work and acting is all top-notch and the visual palette of the film is wonderful. But the way Burton chose to move forward with the story feels entirely rushed: it doesn't allow you time to truly appreciate the surroundings as instead it's too busy rushing off to the next action scene. And yet at the same time as it rushing all about the place, it also drags somewhat, particularly in the middle. There's still enough there to recommend seeing it in theatrically but I'm sad to say I was disappointed.