March Hares, Hatters and 3D Glasses: Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland


Alice Through The Looking Glass

It wasn't a matter of if, but when Johnny Depp would adopt the guise of the Mad Hatter. It was a role that had long lain in wait for him. Lewis Carroll's sublime text has been given the full Tim Burton treatment. The unreality made real provides a seamless and Gothic, visual deception. Computer animation has erased all the cracks and joints we used to notice in the days of older celluloid fantasy -- the strings, the painted backdrops, the clunky animation. Burton's audience is instantly transported into a world that they know can't possibly exist, but which their eyes are forced into passive acceptance of. Although this is a Disney Studios feature, Burton makes no concession to the house style. Here is a dark location, a perfectly realized nightmare in which anything can, and does, occur.

His visualizations are breathtaking, and details such as the frog courtiers, monkey servants, and foot-warming pigs are just perfect, as is everything else on display, including the voices on loan. The March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) is truly deranged as a rickety, moth-eaten bundle of nervous mania, the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) slinks, floats, and smiles with tremendously smiley and spineless aplomb, whilst the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) scampers diffidently around with the ferocious white mouse in a dress, marvelously squeaked by Barbara Windsor. Alan Rickman is a joy as the permanently addled Blue Caterpillar, and Matt Lucas makes a delightful morphed double impact as the chaotic Tweedledee and Tweedledum.  Alice is nineteen, a glacial minx combination of Ophelia and Juliet, a tampering with the original text that works. It would be hard to imagine her in full angelic band and pink bow, because the setting is so macabre and loopy.

Mia Waskowska has the divine glacial sensuality of a young Tilda Swinton. Her Alice is a maverick maiden who wants to take on the world in her own terms. It is a kooky portrayal, and lends Alice an implicit, distant sexiness, but then Carroll had rendered her strangely so in the original. Burton has merely advanced upon what always lurked between the lines of the original text, rendering it palatable by increasing her years. Green-eyed and red-haired, Depp bumbles and rambles impressively -- think Vivienne Westwood on acid masquerading as Alastair Sim in Scrooge. Rarely has an actor been so capable of vanishing into his roles; only Alec Guinness was so effectively invisible within the parts he played. To the Mad Hatter, normally a cardboard-cutout nut, Depp gives a refined sensibility, making him a character harboring a depth of feeling none who have portrayed him previously have bothered to explore. Depp doesn't sanitize his lack of sanity, but reveals him from within, as tortured and humane. Hatters were rendered mad by the mercury they used in their trade. Depp's character flits from pathos to whimsy, and changes accent with equal rapidity as a means of portraying his career induced, altered state.  

Helena Bonham Carter manifests a deliciously demented dwarf Bette Davis reprising her days as Queen Elizabeth, the virgin queen. A tiny monster with a forehead of girth, her feelings extend no further than herself; her different kind of selfish madness is a perfect foil to Depp's lunacy. She is suitably supported throughout by Crispin Glover as her creepy sidekick and sycophant, Stayne. Her otherworldly nemesis and sister, the White Queen, who is vapidly ethereal to the point of annoyance and insincerity, is made floatingly real by Anne Hathaway. By the end we have Alice in armor a la Joan of Arc slaying the Jabberwocky, a moment that owes much to the Harry Potter good-versus-evil kind of finale. Alice's sad farewell to the Mad Hatter creates a brief moment in the cinema when tears silently trickle behind 3D shades. The experience is visually enhanced by the glasses, but nothing leaps from the screen to make the audience scream. As a viewing experience it represents a flawless, seamless joy.

There are moments to anger the purists, but it is an extraordinary work, based on an older one of genius. It seems churlish to be overtly critical of something so enjoyable. Make the effort to catch it where it belongs, in the cinema.