When I was younger, I was in love with Tim Burton. Not in an 'I want to have his babies!' way, but in my nascent fan state, I remember getting very upset that the UK release of his movie Batman had been raised from the 12 certificate while it was on at the cinema to a 15 on home video. Being only eight at the time, I had hopes that my mother might allow me a 12 film (nice historical sidebar, Batman was the first movie in the UK to be awarded a 12, while Spider-Man in 2002 was the first movie to receive the amended 12A certificate which allowed children under the age of 12 to see it as long as they were accompanied by an adult, making it much closer to the American certification code of PG13). But a 15 film? That was a stretch. I needn't have worried, as my mother still let me see it, probably figuring that a movie about Batman couldn't be that bad. Shortly afterward, my father let me get RoboCop 2, an 18 rated film, out of the video shop.
I fell in love with Batman then. Of course, I was already familiar with the character from the Adam West TV series, which got a repeat airing on Channel 4 thanks to Burton's movie, and my embryonic love of Superman was already well in evidence thanks to endless repeats of the Christopher Reeve movies. In the days before video, it was hard to be a fan, especially when you knew there were such things as comic books, but nowhere nearby sold them with any great regularity. I had a few sporadic issues but nothing near enough to enter into that state of comic-book fandom. Even years later, with the knowledge of stores like Forbidden Planet in Newcastle, I never got the hang of collecting comic books.
Not that it matters. You get the impression that Tim Burton wasn't that bothered about the comic book continuity either. He takes the basic essence of the character and fashions something that is undeniably Tim Burton. He travels further down that path in Batman Returns which, masterpiece though it undoubtedly is, it is barely a Batman film. It's more a gothic nightmare in which Batman has a supporting role. Tim Burton's gothic nightmare.
Tim Burton, from the start of his career as an animator for Disney, has carved out a unique niche in the film world that no other director has, with the possible exception of Martin Scorsese, who, like Burton, returns again and again to the same themes, often with the same characters. In the field of science fiction and fantasy, Tim Burton's only possible corollary is Terry Gilliam with whom he shares the animation background and a love of the British (or English, to be more precise) culture. But while Gilliam has a reputation for a hard-hitting vein of adult humour where the universe is a nasty place to live so you'd better just get used to it (the wonderful 'Don't touch it! It's Evil!' scene at the end of Time Bandits is a case in point as is the entirety of Brazil) Burton, despite his somewhat macabre outlook, still has the soft heart of a boy who grew up in Burbank, California, a place of endless summer and countless movie productions facilities.
Alice In Wonderland is Tim Burton's fourteenth film in 25 years, a prodigious output, especially for someone working in the fantasy field. It also marks his seventh film with Johnny Depp and his sixth wife his current partner, Helena Bonham Carter, who must count her lucky stars every day that she didn't get stuck in the costume drama trap that seemed inevitable in the mid-nineties. It stars relative newcomer Mia Wasikowska as Alice, an Australian native whose greatest success to date has been the Oz monster-crocodile movie Rogue. And the screenplay was written by Linda Woolverton who holds a special place in many people's hearts as the screenwriter behind some of Disney's modern classics (although I must admit, they don't really rank among my favourites) such as The Lion King, Beauty and the Beast and Mulan. Her iMDB profile does tell me that she got her break writing for the Star Wars spin-off cartoon show Ewoks and also contributed to one of the greatest cartoons of the 80's; The Real Ghostbusters so she will forever have a special place in my heart.
The title is somewhat misleading, as it is more a sequel to the story of Alice (and in the flashback scenes she is wearing a dress identical to that sported by Alice in the 1951 movie made by Walt Disney) in which she returns to Underland at a time of civil unrest. The Red Queen (Bonham Carter) has Underland under her tyrannical rule and Alice is forced to become the champion to the White Queen (a freakishly ethereal Anne Hathaway). Along the way she allies herself with an assorted group of mismatched companions, principle among them the Mad Hatter (a mesmeric performance by Johnny Depp, although he moves ever further away from the possibility that he might ever be able to play a normal human being again).
This being a Tim Burton film, however, the story is possibly the least important component of the film. The visuals are, as expected, sumptuous and the performances are pitch-perfect. Anne Hathaway doesn't get much to do and as the 'good' queen she could easily have gotten lost in the film, but she imbues her performance with a sense that there is something much more going on underneath and she can switch her emotions with the merest flicker of her eyes. She has come a long way since the potential Disney Princess she played in The Princess Diaries. And her role here more than makes up for the cinematic anathema that was Bride Wars.
Mia Wasikowska, looking uncannily like a young Emilia Fox, carries of the innocence and naivety the role requires, and is far better in the role than Lindsay Lohan would have been (believe it or believe it not, she lobbied for the role, despite her obvious unsuitability for it). Wasikowska manages to convey the journey of Alice from a scared youngster, convinced that Underland is all a dream, to becoming a warrior capable of taking down the Jabberwocky.
The greatest trouble Tim Burton movies have is the lack of emotional cores. It's a problem that stretches all the way back to Pee-Wee's Big Adventure in that it's less of a story and more a sequences of events linked by a number of characters. The only films in his oeuvre which don't suffer from this problem are Ed Wood and Big Fish. Both of which, perhaps coincidentally, are the least fantastic of his films. Even Edward Scissorhands hides behind the essentially emotionless core of a fairy tale; you see Winona Ryder fall in love with Edward but you don't feel it. It's a problem which afflicts Alice In Wonderland but perhaps not one which is Burton's fault. The original Lewis Carroll tales are essentially a series of puzzles and vignettes linked together by the barest of narrative threads. It is up to Burton and Woolverton to reshape the story into something with an emotional payoff, and while the climactic battle with the Jabberwocky, voiced magnificently by the inimitable Christopher Lee, isn't quite as satisfying as the movie demands, and Alice's return to the real world leads to a series of confrontations that reflect Alice's growth while she's been in Underland seem a little strained, it is not quite the point. The tale ends because it has to end, not because it wants to. Alice chooses to return to the real world, just as Will Bloom in Big Fish chooses to accept his father's stories and Batman chooses to remain the Dark Knight even after he's avenged the murder of his parents by Jack Napier. They all choose the right thing to do. Not necessarily the best thing; Bruce Wayne would have had a much easier life had he stopped being Batman, Will buys into his father's stories despite knowing that they are not true and Alice returns home despite how much she belongs in Underland.
In summation, it's not Burton's best film or even his most coherent (those awards belong to Big Fish and Batman respectively) but it is far greater acheivement than the several misfires he's had in recent years, chief among them the hollow and soulless adaptation of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the crushing disappointment of the generic and asinine Planet Of The Apes. It is worth seeing, and it's the first film of this year that I've been able to say that about. It is a shame that the 3D doesn't really add much to it as it's fairly obvious that the movie was shot normally and then the 3D grafted on afterwards, unlike Avatar for which the 3D was almost as much a character as the leads. But it isn't something which damages the film.