Did Burton and Depp lose the magic? A review of Alice in Wonderland

By now Tim Burton has established a tried-and-tested formula that has become predictably unpredictable. The formula runs as follows; Burton + Depp + Bonham-Carter + Elfman = commercial success. ‘Alice in Wonderland’ does not contain the depth of some of Burton’s previous endeavours such as Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands and most recently, Sweeney Todd. The landscape is familiarly unfamiliar in the dark, garish and gritty way we have become accustomed to. The whimsical nuances and subtleties of Wonderland; a surreal world which is just off-kilter are replaced by Burton’s lush, psychedelic, kaleidoscopic, hallucinatory sensory assault that nonetheless seems to drain and amputate Wonderland of much of its mystification.

The drowsy stupor of Wonderland becomes grounded in reality as Burton attempts to transform Alice’s ‘adventure’ (which originates as a succession of random unrelated events loosely strung together), into a meaningful ‘quest’ which seems to provide Wonderland with far too much logic and rationality than it should and transforms it from vague to predestined. The beauty of the characters is their two-dimensional absurdity but by fleshing out his characters (particularly the Mad Hatter), Burton gives them schizophrenic personalities that all too often feel at best misunderstood and at worst sane, rather than insane.

The script-writing is lazy, rushed and unimaginative so that the dialogue becomes progressive rather than expansive. The audience find themselves following an angelic Mia Wasikowska meander her way throughout a pseudo-fanciful world. Of course the awe and authenticity of Wasikowska’s reactions (and indeed those of the other actors) are severely stunted by the excessive use of CGI in a way that is not the case in other renditions of Alice such as the 1985 version starring Natalie Gregory whose reactions are always bewitchingly sincere. We know that the actors are reacting to a false world which renders the film oddly chilling and hollow rather than intimately elusive.

The mercurial and unknowable characters of Wonderland are here reduced to irritating lunatics; Barbara Windsor is agitating as the Door mouse, Matt Lucas is unamusing in his double venture as the Tweedles and Anne Hathaway is quite frankly a bizarre choice for the White Queen. A plethora of known names have been banded up for this venture such as Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry and Timothy Spall but just as with the big names in the Harry Potter series, they feel oddly misused; there to spout a few lines and promptly vanish and as they play CG caricatures; it is almost impossible to tell who is voicing who. Newcomer Wasikowska is undoubtedly the best performance of the film with her delicate, doe-like appearance, mild bewilderment and sleepy understatement and clearly has a promising career set ahead of her.


Burton’s muse and cash-cow Depp dons a ginger wig, a pseudo-Scottish accent and more make-up than Lady Gaga, becoming yet another grotesque and lavish caricature; the Mad Hatter. Though Depp is always charming, enthusiastic and endearing in his roles, his portrayal seems just an extension of Jack Sparrow and Willy Wonka and stems from the same ilk. Bonham-Carter, Burton’s life partner, is eccentrically attractive in her prissy portrayal of the Red Queen who is dwarfed by her abnormally swelled head for the production and produces moments of hilarity and playfulness in her part. It is almost as if Burton, quite aware of the attractive Depp, wishes to make him look as undesirable as possible, especially when starting alongside his partner.

The film is caught somewhere between sequel and a remake and introduces an mistakable feminist agenda as Alice is lured to Wonderland in order to escape conventional Victorian restraints. Throughout the film, there is much dispute over Alice not being ‘the right Alice.’ She learns by the films conclusion, and through having to confront the Jabberwocky as the White Queen’s champion on Frabbulous day, the conviction and authority of her own belief’s and ideals. It’s quite clear to see that the flame-haired Hamish (her betrothed with bad digestion) meets his foil in the Hatter who is as quirky and imaginative as Alice, suggesting if not a romance between the two, then that Alice should find a partner as equally ‘bonkers’ as she.  Because of this the film feels oddly female centred and may ostracise a male fan base.

Burton had the perfect opportunity to either create an authentic re-make of Carroll’s original vision or to depart radically and perhaps hone in on American McGee’s video game ‘Alice’ which transformed Wonderland into a world of insanity and murder, reflecting Alice’s own mental state. Instead he centres on the happy medium; an enjoyable but mediocre romp through a recognisable world. No doubt children will adore this film and fans of the Burton/Depp partnership will not be disappointed but the film will not draw new fans with the promise of anything innovative and fans of Alice may crave something a little more true to the off-key nonsense of the original rather than the gravity and weight that Burton attempts. A delectable playground for the eyes in terms of artifice which begins well but ultimately drags and degenerates around the second act and will not leave the audience feeling massively disoriented as Wonderland should; lacks a sparkle of magic and will ultimately underwhelm! More of an amusement park ride than an exercise in storytelling.


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