Alice in Wonderland is a familiar tale, it's been told many times and there are countless film adaptations (including the `fifties animated Disney film). Instead of retelling an already established story, Tim Burton has instead created a sequel of sorts where an older Alice revisits the place she recalls from a recurring dream.
When I heard that there was to be a new Alice in Wonderland film made I was doubtful that it could work, but when I read that Tim Burton was directing I knew it would be in safe hands - he is one of only a few directors I could imagine creating a world with the gothic, otherworldly appearance required. The result is a fresh look at well known characters in a different adventure, so Burton has the freedom to break from the original without upsetting purists - as long as he stays true to the characters of course.
The general look of the characters and their surroundings is both magical and whimsical, it resembles the illustrations I remember from my Lewis Carroll book while also looking new. It has the trademark Burton look and has the usual collaboration with Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and perhaps more essentially, Danny Elfman. The cast has been chosen with care, most characters are CGI and the voices behind them convey the various animals and people well.
The characters seem to be in keeping with both the original book and established idea of what the cast should be like through years of various re-tellings. The Hatter could perhaps have been darker, but the pseudo-schizophrenic mania and colourful look are enough to bring him to life. He's given a personal history too to give extra depth, there's also a great flashback to the original meeting of the young Alice with the tea party which marries the new story with the old. Alice herself is an interesting character, she doesn't fit in with Victorian English society. Her strong minded, questioning attitude is more comfortable in Underland (we learn that the term "Wonderland" is a result of mishearing the actual name of the place!). By the end of the film Alice seems to represents the new age of women who would go on to play major roles in society rather than blend in at home.
I have two young girls who absolutely love this film, and therefore it's been played many times over the last few weeks. It's with repeat viewing that you realise how wonderful the dialogue is. The script has been crafted to produce something which is modern, but also has a flavour of the Victorian era. It's often fanciful but with very prim delivery, it sounds very unique (e.g. "What a regrettably large head you have. I would very much like to hat it."). The narrative sounds distanced enough from the norm to give the impression that this is a very different reality.
My main criticism of the film is the over-reliance on CGI. There are only one or two characters who aren't either completely generated or modified by CGI. The film looks amazing, there's no doubting that, and the film exists within a beautifully dark fantasy world - but some aspects of it seem as though they're straight from a console game, they look obviously CGI which takes away from the overall viewing experience. I can't help but wonder what this would have been like if it had been animated using stop-motion like the brilliant Nightmare Before Christmas.
The special features on this set aren't exhaustive but they do provide an insight to the greenscreen technology used and they explain the ways in which the Red Queen's head was enlarged and how the Hatter's eyes are still Johnny Depp's despite being considerably larger. The film looks fantastic on Blu-Ray (which I've lent to my dad!) but I've been watching the DVD which is a great transfer and doesn't suffer from bad digital noise or artefacting. The digital copy currently lives on my wife's iPod and the small screen actually makes the CGI effects look even better and look more `real' - it was dead easy to do as well, it just took a few minutes and now we can watch the film on the move.
In a nutshell: This Alice in Wonderland film needed to ooze creative energy to do justice to the original illustrated story, and Tim Burton succeeds in doing just that. The film takes the familiar characters and creates a twisted fantasy world for them to live, the plot threads various elements from the Alice in Wonderland story together in a way which makes sense and doesn't feel as though everything has been included just for the sake of it. The visual effects team have gone to town with computer generated imagery and it's a visual spectacle, but sometimes looks a bit too digitally played with.