Walt Disney Pictures team with madcap visionary Tim Burton for this trippy twist on the Lewis Carroll classic, in eye-popping 3-D no less. As a child, Alice (Mairi Ella Challen) is haunted by reoccurring dreams about a magical place she calls Wonderland, full of strange beings and fantastical creatures. Some years later, the now nineteen-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) flees her arranged marriage to a stuffy aristocrat only to plunge down a rabbit hole and emerge in an oddly familiar alternate reality she thinks is a dream. She encounters a ragtag group of would-be freedom fighters, including the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen), twin dimwits Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas), the feisty Dormouse (Barbara Windsor) and sagely Dodo (Michael Gough), who wonder why Alice remembers nothing of her last visit here.
A civil war is laying waste to Wonderland now the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her right-hand villain the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) are poised to gain the upper hand over its rightful ruler, her saintly sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). But the sagacious Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) knows only Alice can end Red's reign of terror by finding the fabled Vorpal Sword to slay the monstrous Jabberwocky (voiced by Hammer legend Christopher Lee), on the eagerly awaited Frabtuous Day. At least that's the plan, but is Alice really the legendary Alice of old? When her companions are captured by the Red Queen's knights, the all-knowing and super-sly Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) spirits Alice to the one person who can help her recover her "muchness", the melancholy yet mischievous Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp).
There have been close to twenty-six different adaptations of Alice in Wonderland, including Disney's own 1951 animated feature, Jonathan Miller's atmospheric 1966 Jungian interpretation and Jan Svankmajer's eerie stop-motion version from 1990. Almost all have their merits, but filmmakers face a daunting task given Carroll's story is episodic in nature and runs on its own internal logic that defies conventional storytelling. While moviegoers wholeheartedly embraced Burton's effects-laden extravaganza, critics took screenwriter Linda Woolverton to task for supposedly meddling with a classic. And yet one would argue she emerges the unsung hero behind this candy-coloured fever dream of Victoriana gone bananas. Woolverton, who penned Disney's modern classic Beauty and the Beast (1991), cherry picks the most memorable and cinematic scenes from both Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and fashions them into a compelling fantasy adventure/coming of age fable wherein about a girl learning to take charge of her own destiny and power as a young woman.
In Alice's own words she has gone through life being "told what she must do and who she must be." Burton and Woolverton capture the essence of Carroll's vision by ensuring Wonderland embodies Alice's unfettered imagination, her subconscious rebellion against the constrictions of staid Victorian England. An England where her mother (Lindsay Duncan) insists she marry for money, her sister (Jemma Powell) fails to notice her husband (John Hopkins) is a philanderer and their dotty spinster aunt (Frances de la Tour) whiles away the day dreaming of a suitor who will never arrive. The feminist subtext is not overstated but hinges on the deft metaphor of a butterfly emerging from its chrysalis, while the fantastical journey is all about giving Alice the tools to psychologically size up her "real world" opponents.
Surrounded by cast of lively CG creations voiced by quality British character actors, newcomer Mia Wasikowska nicely underplays Alice and stresses her quiet strength of character, as when she touchingly tells the Hatter: "You are bonkers... but all the best people are." No simpering ingenue, Alice has grown into a redoubtable young woman with penetrating wit and a knack for befriending monsters with kindness. The script deepens her relationship with the Mad Hatter. Looking like some mad fusion of Ziggy Stardust and Ken Dodd (and I mean that as a compliment), Johnny Depp is off-the-wall with his CG eyeballs, an accent that deliberately switches between tweedy English and angry Scot and some zany dance moves but at other moments, surprisingly affecting. His schizoid Hatter is both swashbuckling wit and a tragicomic figure lamenting his lost sanity, while that Scottish burr adds weight to his recitation of Carroll's Jabberwocky poem.
While Woolverton's script keeps up a fantastic pace with witty dialogue, Burton pulls off all those famous scenes - Alice's gravity-defying tumble down the rabbit hole, the Hatter's tea party, the Red Queen's croquet game, her chess-styled face-off with the White Queen, the battle with the Jabberwocky - magnificently. Cinematographer Dariusz Wolski and effects maestro Ken Ralston aid Burton in fashioning a dense, sumptuous Wonderland that overflows with some truly amazing (and rather imposing) Carrollian creatures, especially the Bandersnatch and Jabberwocky plus the Red and White knights styled like Japanese samurai robots.
The action gets surprisingly graphic at times, notably when Babs Windsor's Dormouse rips the Bandersnatch's eye out, yet sprinkled with moments of memorably cracked comedy like a delightfully daffy Anne Hathaway impersonating domestic goddess Nigella Lawson during an impromptu cookery sketch. Danny Elfman wraps the whole thing up with a glorious score complete with thunderous drums and angelic choir singing Carroll poetry. Don't let that much-despised phrase, "re-imagining", put you off. It may not be the most faithful Carroll adaptation but retains enough of his lyrical wit to emerge one of the best. A good balance of Burton eccentricity and Disney warmth.
American director, producer and writer, frequently of Gothic flavoured fantasy who has acquired a cult following in spite of the huge mainstream success of many of his projects. He began as an animator at Disney, who allowed him to work on his own projects while animating the likes of The Fox and the Hound, which garnered the attention of Paul Reubens to direct Pee Wee's Big Adventure.