Years after her adventures in Wonderland have become a dimly-remembered dream, 19-year-old Alice (Wasikowska) takes a tumble into eerily familiar Underland, a realm of terror under the mad Red Queen (Bonham Carter), who has usurped the White Queen (Hathaway). Disappointed she’s forgotten them, the Hatter (Depp) and friends insist Alice is their prophesied champion returned. Uh oh.
Lewis Carroll and Tim Burton: a dream team or what? Visually the certainty that the two imaginative fabulists were made for each other is, to a great extent, realized exquisitely, with spectacular 3D, a haunting design for Wonderland, a seamless meeting of live action with animation, and a great deal of offbeat, twisted charm. It is in the telling that the story -- which is not an adaptation of Alice Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking-Glass but really a kind of sequel that references both and incorporates characters from both -- is, it has to be said, far less Carroll than Burton taking fanciful flight with a script penned by Linda Woolverton, (screenwriter of Beauty And The Beast and The Lion King for Disney).
Woolverton’s theme is Alice becoming a woman and finding her destiny, with a little help from socio-political allegory and the most eclectic cinematic band of guerrilla revolutionaries in fantasy since the Fellowship Of The Ring, from Johnny Depp’s acutely sensitive, schizophrenic Hatter to the agitated Dormouse voiced by Barbara Windsor and the mischievous illusionist Cheshire Cat voiced by Stephen Fry.
Strictly speaking it should be entitled something like Alice in Underland or Alice: The Return. So, be warned, there is no recitation of The Walrus and the Carpenter, no Mock Turtle or Humpty Dumpty (although arguably it’s worth the trip just to hear Depp recite from Jabberwocky). That’s regrettable for Carroll enthusiasts, the most fervent of whom will lament the loss of many cherished puns and quips, riddles, recitations, logic exercises, word games, contests and game playing. At least flamingoes and hedgehogs are still abused as croquet equipment, the mad queen’s soldiers are styled as playing cards (with her henchman-in-chief Glover’s one-eyed Knave) and a positively Narnian-in-scale battle of goodies, baddies and beasties for the realm kicks off over a giant chess board.
Wrapped around the Wonderland sequences is a framing device — Alice flees a surprise engagement party when she discovers she is to wed a snotty aristrocrat — that feels forced but things soon perk up with the appearance of Michael Sheen’s White Rabbit. Hurtling down the rabbit hole and experiencing life from various size perspectives thanks to the ever-popular potions and cakes, we and Alice are re-introduced to some of the most unforgettable oddballs in literature. And actually, losing one classic line of surrealism, satire, poems and freaky stuff enshrined in nonsense literature to impose a very Burtonesque brand of bizarreness (like the castle moat that has to be crossed by stepping on offed heads) makes for an engagingly creepy and coherent story of girl power that does work very nicely. Exchanging the child Alice for an Alice who bravely infiltrates the Red Queen’s court of tantrum-driven whimsy and rage as a secret agent, rescues her comrades from the head chop and bursts beautifully into battle in armour on the back of the Bandersnatch creates a pleasing, exciting adventure in its own right.
Helena Bonham Carter’s tyrannical wacko is sensationally fun, her grotesquely enlarged head miraculously topping a diminutive body. Even Hathaway’s good queen is unnerving, her white hair at punky odds with her black brows and lips. As for Depp, in his seventh collaboration with Burton, what’s not to like? In a frizzed orange fright wig, huge yellow-green cat’s eye contact lenses and gap-toothed, Depp still has dash, determined to see him as more romantic hero than lunatic. We’re right there with him on that.
The rest of the cast is satisfyingly thick with sterling British thespians and personalities, from Lindsay Duncan as Alice’s mother to a splendid voice cast that includes Alan Rickman as the hookah-smoking caterpillar, Sir Christopher Lee the Jabberwocky, Timothy Spall as royal bloodhound Bayard and Matt Lucas digitally duplicated into the chatterbox twin Tweedles, Dum and Dee.
Shot in 2D and 3D’ed up subsequently a la The Nightmare Before Christmas, this has obvious appeal in either option and, no doubt, in its DVD edition which supposedly follows, in a groundbreaking policy, in a mere 12 weeks.
Sadly Lewis lite and not without flaws but this is as Burtonesque as one could wish for, a real treat for fans of his twisted imagination and great British character actors.