Tuesday, 9 March 2010

Down the Rabbit Hole

I've followed the hype for Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland as much as anyone else, but I wasn't entirely sure it would be my cup of tea. I have a bit of an issue with the fantasy genre; I kept way out of Lord of the Rings, Beowulf and Pan's Labyrinth, and the Harry Potter films have been a constant source of disappointment. I don't believe the plots, I don't get absorbed in the fantasy worlds, and my mind just wanders. If there's a book original involved, it's often ripped apart and cut down, with casting that clashes with my mind's interpretation. With CGI still in its pubescent years, a lot of the action sequences and setting choices just seem like a way to flex various technological muscles. All in all, they end up feeling less like a story and more like an epic film experiment.

Since seeing Avatar just before Christmas, I've opened my mind up to fantasy a little more. For once I just appreciated it for being something truly beautiful, and I let myself be absorbed (ironically, as this was the fantasy narrative other people slated the most.) So with Alice in Wonderland, I decided to ignore the Burton 'cult' factor, the slightly tired-sounding casting, the fact that I absolutely hated what he did to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory - bring back Gene Wilder and the orange oompa loompas! - and give it a go. More specifically I decided to go on my own, in the spirit of falling down the rabbit hole, and to an unsociable screening time. It was essentially me, a massive screen and my imagination. I don't often take solitary cinema trips, but having done it to review things before, I knew it was the best way to avoid taking on other people's reactions or getting distracted at crucial moments.

Luckily, distraction wasn't a problem as Alice is totally gripping. It wasn't too wacky, it used the CGI and the surreal dimension to enhance certain things, but it didn't dominate the story. Having heard nothing but Johnny Depp this and Helena B-C that, I was delighted to hear Stephen Fry as a purring, whimsical Cheshire Cat and Alan Rickman as the pipe-smoking blue caterpillar. Factor in Babs Windsor as the Dormouse and Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, and you've got an impressive range of character actors. But the celebrity casting didn't distract too much from the beautifully detailed characters - one of my favourite moments was when the heroine finds herself in the forest of Wonderland being berated by talking flowers, rabbits, mice, chubby twins and caterpillars for being the wrong Alice. It was so beautiful and striking after the bleached, genteel reality we had just come from, and that's when I started to believe that this was a journey I really wanted to go on.

Mia Wasikowska, looking remarkably like a young Kate Moss (but with 100% more personality), more than holds her own in the title role. I had prejudged her supermodel looks and waiflike stature, but Burton clearly knows what he is doing. She is odd and curious in a way I could totally relate to. I don't know if all girls feel a bit isolated and inclined to say socially unacceptable things, but I often do, and Alice's detached nature and 'mad' statements really worked for me. This Alice is out of place in a regulated and polite human world, then finds herself amongst creatures much madder than she. It made the transition from reality to Wonderland much more interesting. It made me want to go back to the original animated version, where I seem to remember Alice as being a lot more normal and confused by the wacky things she sees. This Alice fits right into the madness and goes with the flow, which I enjoyed. She is not picture perfect, but pale and interesting, with dark inquisitive eyes and a sort of physical resilience that makes her at home in the suit of armour she wears at the climax of the film.

Helena Bonham Carter is suitably posh, lisping and full of tantrums. I liked the animated additions to her character, but it was all as cliched as I'd suspected. Johnny Depp is featured much more than the Mad Hatter demands, and becomes an unnecessary hero of Wonderland (something in his contract?) but just about gets away with it by being believably barking and utterly charming. How much this has to do with his giant, graphically-enhanced green eyes, I don't know. The odd decision to have his accent flit from BBC English to gruff Scottish didn't really do it for me... perhaps another aspect of his insanity, perhaps a chance to fully showcase the skills section of his CV. I found it distracting, just as I found the White Queen's affected 'grace' - I like the imaginative nature of Burton's direction, I just don't like being able to see the mechanics and decisions behind a character.

I did think for the first time that Burton should have snapped up the Harry Potter films; the man knows how to make things odd, quirky and otherworldly without overly explaining or domesticating them. He got the balance between human and other so right in this film, while I found every installment of the HP films jarringly badly scripted and imagined at times. I think he would have stripped them down to the important parts and really brought the characters to life. But perhaps the concept was just too commercial for him. Here, they have taken a classic with enough distance to completely reinvent some parts, while keeping in the familiar ponderings that spring to mind when we think of Lewis Carroll: "Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."

I enjoyed the script, I felt the story bounded along through the 'Drink Me' potions, the Red Queen's court and the Mad Hatter's tea party, and nothing felt too long-winded. I loved the little touches of Tweedledum and Tweedledees yoda-like speech, Alice's wound making her tougher and more warrior-like and the Tudor references in the Red Queen's palace. I think a little more humour and lightness could have improved the adventure, but Burton was understandably going for a crueller, darker and more violent Wonderland. The nonsense and riddle was done well and it didn't become a pantomime, Alice returning to her world genuinely jolted me, and I liked the way she was revisiting as a young woman, having thought the place a dream in childhood.

What I find hard in fantasy films is when the world they create is inconsistent, badly communicated or cliched. This Wonderland was solid - characters spoke of people and places as if we were all in on the facts, and this is the root of the story: everyone seems to be speaking a different language and it is Alice who is the oddity. I'm glad Burton didn't try and make Wonderland too easy for us to enter, it shouldn't be. It felt just right as a dash through foreign landscapes, nonsensical speeches and fascinating characters, with the sole aim of widening Alice's perspective so she doesn't settle for the ordinary in the real world. She is made to feel extraordinary in a good way, and goes back to her life with confidence, and this layer of grown-up narrative really gave the film an edge. Yes, I cringed a bit when Depp burst into his 'futterwhacken' dance at the end, and yes there was an over-long 'look what we can do' CGI chase by a Bandysnatch, but overall these indulgences were eclipsed by so many great performances. This is no mean feat, reinventing one of the most imagined and interpreted stories of all time. Google images for 'Alice in Wonderland' and you'll see how many illustrations and ideas have come out of this one book.

I do recommend you take a trip to Wonderland, but do it when you're feeling a bit odd, and if you're brave enough, go alone. I guarantee it will improve the experience.


  1. Interesting article, though I have to say that my experience of the film was completely different.

    After seeing the breathtaking Avatar I became a fan of 3D and fantasy and was eagerly awaiting Alice in Wonderland. Sadly, I have to say that it was a big disappointment.

    If not for Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, the film would be a complete non-event. Anne Hathaway was annoying to say the least and although the picturesque cinematography was, at times, impressive, the lack of an effective soundtrack made loosing oneself in fantasy very difficult to achieve.

    Mia Wasikowska's performance was flat and almost cringe-worthy. Her dance at the end of the film was pretty awkward and (when compared with that of Johnny Depp's only a few moments earlier) worth only pitying.

    Overall however, I'm glad I've seen the film in the cinema, because it is the only venue where it could be given any credit.

  2. How can you 'guarantee it will improve the experience' having only seen it on your own. Another self-important opinion piece, I was beginning to expect better.

  3. Er, hello angry commenter! Sorry to have offended. I do welcome feedback, but feel free to share your identity too so I can pinpoint which type of reader I am alienating. Bit of a cheap shot to call someone self-important behind an 'Anonymous' mask.

    As for my wording, you're probably right, I shouldn't have said 'guarantee'. As you also point out, it was an opinion piece (as a review inevitably tends to be) and for the record, I cannot guarantee anything of the sort and will be unable to refund your money if you see it again on your own and enjoy it less. I can only assume this is what happened with Anonymous here and I apologise profusely for false advertising ;)