"You're mad, bonkers... but I'll tell you a secret – all the best people are." This line early on in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland expresses perfectly what seems to be the director's guiding philosophy.
The only problem is that his Hollywood paymasters aren't quite as subversive as he is. The result here is a wildly inventive film straitjacketed in conventional narrative form.
This version of Alice, scripted by Linda Woolverton, takes Lewis Carroll's young heroine and turns her into a beautiful 19-year-old girl. Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is about to be forced into an arranged marriage with a priggish, nose-picking English toff called Hamish Ascot (Leo Bill). Given the formalities and hypocrisy in the Victorian England depicted at the start of the film, it's little wonder that Alice is so eager to fall down the rabbit hole.
Burton's Wonderland is not cosy in the slightest. It's a gothic netherworld inhabited by shape-shifting and threatening creatures. Initially, at least, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), with his clown face and shock of orange hair, seems genuinely deranged. Tweedledum and Tweedledee (delightfully played by Matt Lucas) look as if they might have slipped out of some avant-garde Czech cartoon. The visual style, pitched somewhere between animation and live action, is both creepy and ingenious. The Red Queen as played by Helena Bonham Carter has a level of malice and megalomania that evokes memories of Bette Davis in her pomp... or, at least, of Miranda Richardson in Blackadder. The milieu here is closer to that of Burton's Batman films than to Lewis Carroll as traditionally depicted on screen. As Alice (gamely played by Wasikowska) changes size, there is a hallucinatory quality to the storytelling. Composer Danny Elfman has written a dark, dramatic score that adds to the surprising sense of menace.