Tim’s fantastical wonders

2010-03-08 00:00

DIRECTOR Tim Burton has an idiosyncratic, hyperactive imagination, which has served some his films well, others less so: Edward Scissorhands has become a classic, but his Batman was rather overstuffed and boring. He has two muses: his wife Helena Bonham Carter and Johnny Depp, who bring his visions to life.

I am not an unreserved fan, finding some of his films just too much, and went to see his Alice in Wonderland with a degree of trepidation — forewarned by stills showing Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter looking a bit like Frodo Baggins on acid.

The story has been tweaked, a blend of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the sequel, Through the Looking Glass. Why mess with a well-loved classic? Well, Alice is not nearly as well known or understood by modern readers as we may assume, because it is so rooted in Victorian society and Lewis Carroll’s universe of mathematics, riddles and rhymes. What modern audiences do know is that Alice falls down a rabbit hole and meets a series of bizarre characters.

Burton has grown Alice up. Now she is 19, poised for marriage and haunted by fantastical dreams. The scenes before she makes the plunge are wonderfully silly, with hints of the madness to come. Why would she follow a rabbit in a waistcoat down a hole? If she had seen him before, and was in the midst of a party she wanted to escape, why not? And down that hole, the characters from both the first and second adventures of Carroll’s Alice are blended together, and there is a rivalry between the irascible playing card Red Queen from Wonderland and the benevolent chess game White Queen from Looking Glass. Alice has a destiny, to slay the Jabberwocky and return Underland to the control of the White Queen.

Amid all this madness stands the Mad Hatter, and because he is played by Depp, we know he will be far more central to the story than in the books. The Hatter was mad in the stories because hatmakers used mercury, which caused mental deterioration. Depp’s Hatter is possibly schizophrenic, driven mad by the terror of the Red Queen’s reign. He is also kind and talented, whipping up a fetching frock out of a ruffle when Alice shrinks out of her dress.

For me, the film succeeds because Depp makes the Hatter a real, poignant, character. If he was just a nutty cipher, why would one care what happened to his world? Alas, Alice is not a particularly compelling companion. The unknown actress Burton cast struggles to hold her own against the stellar supporting cast (even the voices are big names, memorably led by Alan Rickman as the wise and enigmatic Caterpillar). She is pallid and flatter than a playing card. Which brings us to Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen, with an enormous bulbous head and a manner madder than that of the Hatter, and instead of a king a nasty knight as a sidekick, who asks her, in essence, “Why be loved if you can be feared?”, the question considered by tyrants everywhere and always.

And what of the visuals? Well, the film is available in 3D, but not in Maritzburg (when will we be so lucky?). It’s fitting that Burton used this technology to create a surreal, drug-vision world, but the lack doesn’t ruin the experience. The Red Queen’s courtiers, including fish and frog footmen, are marvellous, and her playing card army rather scary. Not many men would ask their wives to appear on film with a huge head and tiny body, but Burton knows Bonham Carter is game.

There’s lots to look at, and even audiences not really familiar with the source material can enjoy the film. For those who are, relax and listen for echoes rather than expecting an exact reflection of Carroll’s wonder world.

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