We Bought a Zoo
A widowed father played by Matt Damon moves to the South Californian country and purchases a zoo with his family
On Film4: 6 Sep 6:25PM
Tim Burton puts his own spin on Lewis Carroll's classic children's tale, in Disney digital 3D. Stars Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Mia Wasikowska
At 19 years of age, it's back down the rabbit hole for one of literature's most beloved heroines, Alice (played by Mia Wasikowska), and back into Wonderland, or Underland as she now learns it is called. Welcome to Tim Burton's vision of Lewis Carroll's playful alternate universe.
Burton's adaptation is rightly careless of slavishly rendering its source in wholly loyal detail. Any purists who argue that this Alice doesn't work because it strays so far from the text are wrong: this Alice doesn't work for the far more essential reason that the characters are too often missing a basic lifeforce of their own, possibly a result of being enbalmed in stunning-looking but airless CGI. They're not helped by dialogue that feels like an afterthought to a long-planned series of conceptual character designs.
There's also that nagging "teacher's pantomime" feeling, familiar from the Harry Potter series, brought on by a cast list that reads like a who's who of national treasures. They're mostly great actors, but really classic voice work in animation comes when you hear a character speak and their voice is a seamless part of that character, not when you hear a character speak and think "Ah, that's Alan Rickman."
This Wonderland is populated with characters who worry "am I mad?" only to be reassured that "all the best people are." It's a comforting sort of manifesto for loyal Burton fans, many of whom are the type to take comfort in a self-image tricked out with various eccentricities. It's a shame then that this "mad is best" mantra isn't really borne out by the film. Most of these characters are only mad in the sanitised way that Disney's cackling hyenas are mad in The Lion King, a film with which Alice In Wonderland shares its scriptwriter.
The truly loopy characters are undoubtedly the bad guys. Helena Bonham Carter's red queen is the dottiest of them all, and that's largely because she combines the psyche of an enraged two year old with the power of an absolute monarch. The good guys tend to manifest their madness by flinging tea cups or questioning the structure of their society. No need to introduce them to a padded cell just yet, then.
Alice is a perfectly serviceable piece of family entertainment (although a film like Jim Henson's magical Alice riff Labyrinth has both more charm and more inappropriate scares in its littlest goblin finger), but we know that Burton is capable of so, so much more. Hopefully, having wrestled with the enormous difficulties of CGI blockbuster moviemaking, Burton can move on to focus on what he does better than most: creating memorable, believeable universes offering an alternative to Disney behemoths, which for all that its director's name is plastered over the promotional material, is what this Alice is.
Disney family fun with the odd carefully calculated dark patch. Fine on its own terms, but a let-down given the talent involved. Disappointinger and disappointinger.
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