As lopped heads bob in the Red Queen’s (Helena Bonham Carter, shouty) moat and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, wispy) mixes potions from old fingers, the theoretically perfect fit of Tim Burton to Lewis Carroll’s skewed surrealism seems perfect in practice, too. As Burton “re-imaginings” go, it’s no stinking Apes. It’s closer to Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, touting sweet scoff for the eyes but struggling to provide a story with the intended emotional weight.
Linda Woolverton’s script aims to put sense into Carroll’s ‘uncommon nonsense’. This Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is 19, quick, clever. Escaping a public, unwanted marriage proposal, she tails our frisky rabbit down to the ‘Underland’ (ouch!) of her childhood dreams. The bulbous-bonced Red now rules, psychotically. Alice must face the despot’s beastly Jabberwocky and Find Her True Destiny. And yes, that is the old cheese of self-discovery subtexts you can smell.
But Burton isn’t one to fret over story when there’s eye-candy to cook. That’s Alice’s USP. Charging round his latest alt-world with the fervour of a “frumious Bandersnatch”, Burton potently tethers hallucinogenic 3D detail to lunging action. Cheshire Cat’s vapour-trails, Blue Caterpillar’s fuzz and light-refracting mushrooms blossom; in motion, a beastie’s rampage makes the undergrowth explode, a dog-ride dizzies the senses and the March Hare’s table-trashing has you ducking. The screen screams “EAT ME”.
Impressively, the cast hold their own. Bonham Carter gives good brat, Matt Lucas is decently deadpan as both Tweedles and Wasikowska’s every-girl registers likeably. Top spot-the-voice presences include Babs Windsor (paint-stripping Dormouse shriek) and Alan Rickman (out-of-his-gourd Caterpillar). As for Burton’s wing-man, Johnny Depp flares vividly as a carrot-topped Hatter, colours undulating to his moods like a DayGlo Rorschach test. Formulaic closing battle and plot-frame aside, this mad menagerie is freakishly fun to escape to.