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FILM REVIEW Alice in Wonderland

Going Out
Helena Bonham Carter is the star of the show in Tim Burton’s ‘Alice In Wonderland’.

Alice - more style than substance

Daniel Carey

THERE’S a great scene in ‘Fawlty Towers’ where Basil is seated at a typewriter, frantically hammering out an alternative menu as the head chef’s fondness for the bottle threatens to ruin gourmet night.
“He’s out! He’s flat out!” Torquay’s favourite hotel manager screams at his wife. “Who is?” a confused Sybil asks. “Kurt!” Basil replies. “Who do you think, Henry Kissinger?” Sybil is still none the wiser. “What do you mean ‘out’?” she asks. “He’s drunk!” says Basil. “Drunk?” Sybil queries. “Drunk! Soused! Potted! Inebriated! Got it?” Basil asks, referencing all the euphemisms that waitress Polly – at pains not to alarm the guests – had deployed in alerting him to the problem.
“I don’t believe it,” says an incredulous Sybil. “Neither do I,” Basil muses, still typing furiously. “Perhaps it’s a dream.” He smacks his head three times on the adjacent desk, and having failed to wake up, comments with a resigned air: “No, it’s not a dream; we’re stuck with it.”
For most of Tim Burton’s latest release ‘Alice In Wonderland’, the title character is also convinced she is in a dream. The movie opens with young Alice recounting a ‘nightmare’ to her father. Fast forward 16 years, and the now 19-year-old Alice is trying to escape her suitor at an engagement party. Luckily, there’s a white rabbit and a hole – two things that haven’t been mentioned in a general release picture since ‘The Matrix’. Curiouser and curiouser.
Alice’s very long fall is the first sign of the much-trumpeted 3-D effects. She is briefly left with a Jedward-style haircut, and becomes tiny, then huge. Wonderland bears a passing resemblance to Pandora from ‘Avatar’, but the colourful flowers and beasts make for a more memorable vista.
Here’s the thing. Virtually everything looks great. Visual effects, costumes and photography are top notch. A dash through toadstools turns up treats. A hat is used as a frisbee. A battle is played out on a chessboard. The Cheshire Cat appears and disappears. A bird is used as a golf club, and a hedgehog as a golf ball.
We first see the Red Queen as a garden sculpture worthy of Edward Scissorhands, a still-beloved character which brought director Burton and star Johnny Depp together in 1990. But while Depp – an always likeable presence – is more interesting to look at than to listen to as the Mad Hatter, Helena Bonham Carter (Burton’s partner in life) is the star of the show.
The Red Queen (Carter) is used to getting her way despite her giant head. Her volcanic temper and ‘behead first, ask questions later’ policy makes her far more interesting than her sister, the angelic, pacifist White Queen (Anne Hathaway).
It’s clear enough where things are going – Alice must represent the White Queen on the field of battle – and some of the adventures along the way are diverting enough. Some Carroll loyalists think the maddest thing about this new reel treatment is that it actually makes sense (a betrayal of the source material, they reckon). But the denouement is problematic for other reasons too.
Since when was Alice Joan of Arc, or Xena: Warrior Princess? For a film that gets so much of the style right (arguably at the expense of substance), her suit of armour is a visual bum note. The dialogue – not the flick’s strong suit at the best of times – also goes into bizarre territory. Therapy-speak and trade with China both get an outing. There’s a lot here to like, but also much to improve upon if the mooted sequel comes to pass. A lot done, more to do.

Rating 6 out of 10