19-year-old Alice returns to the magical world from her childhood adventure, where she reunites with her old friends and learns of her true destiny: to end the Red Queen's reign of terror.
Many have found fertile creative berth nestling into Lewis Carroll’s Alice books since their publication close to 150 years ago. This is not surprising as Carroll himself was playing with the slipperiness of representation in not only his shape-shifting characters, but his shape-shifting language as well. His neologisms, his portmanteau words, and his doggerel mean that meaning is sometimes oily to the grip, therefore leaving his work well open to interpretation and riff.
There have been dozens of film adaptations, from Cecil Hepworth’s short in 1903—back when movies were still fetal, when narrative was still an experiment seldom attempted—to Disney’s madcap! (their word; their exclamation point) Wonderland adventures where flowers sang ‘Little bread-and-butterflies kiss the tulips, and the sun is like a toy balloon.’ There’s been psychedelic cartoon porn (Malice in Wonderland by Vince Collins), a 1960s rat pack TV version with Sammy Davis, Jr. as the Cheshire Cat and Zsa Zsa Gabor as the Red Queen, and Jan Svankmeyers dark and troubling, raw meat-obsessed stop-motion animation (where the dormouse builds a camp fire on Alice’s scalp). There’s been revisionist takes, like Dreamchild, where an 80-year-old Alice, traumatized with recovered memories, travels to NYC for the centenary of Lewis Carroll/Charles Dodgson. Jefferson Airplane, of course, found the stories rife with amateur pharmaceutical interest, Annie Leibovitz found inspiration for her photography, and they’ve been referenced from everyone from The Beatles to Snoop Dogg.
The books, it turns out, are also the perfect material for Tim Burton, who—though not the first to locate the material’s fiendish elements—is at his best when working with equal and compatible doses of sinister and sentimental. He is in his finest form in years, like a big devil-child let back in the playground. With a sharp and excellent script by Linda Woolverton, Burton gets his proto-goth gnashers into the material and makes it his own. The design is pure Burton: the familiar twisted, claw-like trees, the fairground grotesquerie, but what’s back and what we missed recently is that he seems to be having fun. His Alice is playful, hilarious, and naughty.
The story, then, is extremely familiar. Girl goes down a hole—in this case, returns down a hole to escape betrothal into inbred gentry—and encounters an anally retentive rabbit, a Williams Burroughs-like caterpillar, a hatter made mad by mercury and beaver hair, as most hatters were, and with demon eyes, a macrocephalic Elizabethan queen with a head fixation, both her own and lopping off those of others, her army of playing card warriors who bear a striking resemblance to Epstein’s sculpture ‘Rock Drill’ (featured recently in an exhibition at the Royal Academy), a hyena-like bandersnatch, a set of endomorphic twins who finish off not only each other’s sentences but also, by the looks of it, other people’s meals, a white queen who wandered in from another type of Disney movie altogether, and an evaporating cat. She then disrupts things. Not entirely faithful to the books but rather to ‘the spirit of the characters,’ as Burton says, it is a perfect mating of artist and subject.
Burton’s dark, dark humour is equalled with a showcase of superb performances. He lets his actors have as much fun as the production crew. Helena Bonham Carter all but steals the movie as the bratty Red Queen, with her body image fixations over having a big head (most Wonderland characters in the original drawings by Sir John Tenniel had big heads, here it was a stroke of genius to single her out) who insists on a warm pig belly for her feet and tabletops held up by quaking, broken, monkey slaves in bellhop uniforms. Johnny Depp is less madcap! mad than he is troubled mad. It’s a remarkably interior performance, considering; one of the sad kind of lunatics. Less showy than the Red Queen, he is nonetheless mercurial, his hue and costumes changing with his moods. Anne Hathaway, as the White Queen, is sublime. Her performance is one of overaffected delicacy, a satire on the traditional good princess roles of fairy stories. She pirouettes to get across a room and gags—lady-like—when bending over the severed head of the Jabberwocky to collect its blood, all fluttering limp wrists, though there is the desperation in her eyes as this was the role thrust upon her. She’s more in her element when preparing potions with ingredients like buttered fingers and urine of horsefly. It is a film that actually makes a Crispin Glover performance seem restrained. Even the animated characters are given full depth (in no small measure due to the excellent performances of just the voices of Alan Rickman and Stephen Fry, as Absolem the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat, respectively). My personal favourite performance in the film was that of a CGI frog footman, an exquisitely nuanced comic turn in guilt and subservience.
Alice (Mia Wasikowsky), like the rest of the film, is just right. There’s a recognizable Carrollian Alice from Tenniel’s original drawings but this is a decidedly modern girl, in league with all the concurrent heroines with more wit than their parents—and usually played by Dakota Fanning—more American than Victorian British in her innate confidence and rugged individualism. But Wasikowsky’s guilelessness and Burton’s direction—not to mention Woolverton’s script—mercifully steer well away from cultural clichés and grotesque precociousness. She goes down the hole a stifled hostage to Victorian ideas on womanhood, and emerges a fully confident 21st century kind of gal: modern, post-suffragette, post-psychoanalysis. ‘You need to talk to someone about these delusions,’ she says to her babbling spinster aunt (Frances de la Tour), ‘there is no prince.’ Girl power!
Fantasy for Tim Burton is what for others would be a nightmare, and this is indeed a cruel, dark vision. There are moats with bobbing severed heads for stepping stones, animal croquet is no longer just whimsy, it’s animal cruelty, playing with a garrotted hedgehog and concussed flamingo, and the dormouse, far being a childlike critter playing with a paper sword, graphically pulls out the bandersnatch’s eye with a pin, like a cocktail onion in a Gibson. It is sumptuous, idiosyncratic, and insanely imaginative.