Alice's very weird wonderland: Why a behind-the-scenes row might see Tim Burton's most fantastical film yet disappear from cinemas as fast as the Cheshire Cat
By Alison Boshoff
20th February 2010
The word is that watching Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland is the closest you can come to falling down the rabbit hole yourself and into Lewis Carroll's fantasy world.
Those who have seen the film, or clips of it, say that it is utterly breathtaking, a hallucinatory alternate universe completely realised in every detail, from the sun streaming in through the gills of the mushrooms to the light falling on the individual fuzzy hairs on the caterpillar's back.
It cost £158million to make and, with computer graphics mixed with live action and animation, it is more technically ambitious than anything Burton has done before. And it is in 3-D, putting it head-to-head with the sci-fi phenomenon that is Avatar.
But far more significantly, it is said to be simply Burton's most beautiful and most perfectly imagined fantasy world.
The casting also has critical expectations rising. Who else but Matt Lucas could play the twin grotesques of Tweedledum and Tweedledee? And Johnny Depp, with green fluorescent contact lenses, rouged cheeks and a frizzy orange wig, makes the most extraordinary Mad Hatter.
With typical attention to detail, Burton has enhanced Depp's eyes with camera trickery, making them 15 per cent larger; so it's still Johnny Depp, but Through The Looking-Glass.
Oscar-winning costume designer Colleen Atwood has created a look for Depp which sees his clothes change colour as his moods come and go. He is like a human mood ring, hung with ribbons and hatpins and thimbles which dangle from his fingertips.
The Cheshire Cat, who can appear and disappear at will and has what Burton calls a creepy quality, is voiced by Stephen Fry and taps into Burton's hatred of cats.
Michael Sheen voices the White Rabbit, Alan Rickman is the caterpillar and Barbara Windsor the dormouse, Christopher Lee surfaces as the monstrous Jabberwock, Timothy Spall is a lugubrious bloodhound, Frances de la Tour is Alice's Aunt Imogene, Michael Gough the Dodo and Paul Whitehouse the March Hare.
Burton's partner, Helena Bonham Carter, plays the Queen of Hearts as the acme of royal rage, with a plucked hairline, red wig, geisha-white face and uncontrollable 'Off with her head!' aggression.
On screen, her head has been enlarged to three times its size and the end result is quite grotesque. 'I can't rely on Tim to make me pretty,' sighs Helena.
Alice In Wonderland - created in the 1860s by Charles Dodgson, a mathematics lecturer at Christ Church, Oxford, under the pseudonym Lewis Carroll - is surely the literary masterpiece which Burton was born to interpret.
He has even worked in the studio once used by the English illustrator Arthur Rackham, whose illustrations for the 1907 edition ' produced the most iconic pictures of Alice that anyone has ever seen'.
'I read the Alice stories when I was eight, and I've seen the various TV and cinema versions, including the 1951 Disney cartoon. But, to be honest, I've never liked any of them,' Burton says.
'There was always a silly girl wandering around from one crazy character to another, and I never felt a real emotional connection to that, so it was an attempt to try and give it some framework and emotional grounding that I felt I hadn't seen in any version before.
'I think all of those characters serve to indicate some type of mental weirdness that everybody goes through.'
Burton says he wanted an Alice 'with gravity' rather than the usual little girl skipping through the grass in her white socks and a blue pinafore dress.
Eventually, he settled on Mia Wasikowska, a young Australian actress. 'She had that emotional toughness; standing her ground in a way which makes her kind of an older person but with a younger person's mentality,' the director says.
Having previously portrayed the equally weird and wonderful Edward Scissorhands and Willy Wonka for Burton, Johnny Depp was a shoo-in for the Mad Hatter.
'I read the Lewis Carroll stories over and over again, and I learned everything I could about Victorian times,' Depp says.
'It would have been too easy, and not very believable, to have played the Mad Hatter as just a straightforward crazy guy.
'But I knew Tim would be wanting more than that - there had to be a reason why he was like that, because something had tipped him over the edge.'
Depp's research revealed that the term 'mad as a hatter' came from a truth - that hatters in Victorian times suffered from mercury poisoning, a side-effect of the hat- manufacturing process which would affect the mind.
'So now we knew why he's mad, and after that, anything went,' Depp says.
'The mercury would have also shown through his skin and his hair, so the Hatter would have looked as mad as he behaved.'
For screenwriter Linda Woolverton (The Lion King, Beauty And The Beast), the positive early reaction has been a vindication of her vision.
'I wasn't trying to re-tell the old story; I was toying with the thought: what if Alice was older and she went back into Wonderland?
'I had this mental picture of her standing at a very crucial moment in her life and having to make an important decision, but being distracted by the White Rabbit.'
In the film, Alice's turning point comes as she receives an unexpected and unwelcome very public marriage proposal in a Victorian garden.
Seeing the White Rabbit - with his trademark waistcoat and watch, of course - she runs after him, stumbles and falls down a hole into Wonderland, which is in decline, overgrown and rather haunted.
She is taken to the hookah-smoking caterpillar, who tells her that according to ancient prophecy, she has returned to slay the Red Queen's dreaded Jabberwock and bring about the end of her reign.
'There's a lot that Lewis Carroll didn't write, but I've based other scenes on things he did', Woolverton says.
'It will infuriate the purists, but this was never meant to be a remake. This is Alice as a young woman.' \
But despite all this nurturing of Burton's vision, his movie is under threat of being smothered at birth. Quite extraordinarily, the UK's three largest cinema chains - Odeon, Vue and Cineworld - are threatening not to show it.
They account for 65 per cent of the UK's cinemas, and 90 per cent of the 3-D screens, so the threat is a serious one.
Given that the premiere is next Thursday and the movie opens on March 5, it's a disaster.
The cause of the angst is that Disney wants to release the film on DVD and Blu-ray only three months after it opens at the cinema, rather than the standard 17 weeks.
It wants to get the DVD into the shops before the midsummer doldrums, and to capitalise on the marketing of the movie while it is still fresh in people's minds.
But the cinemas are afraid that people will just wait to buy the film on DVD rather than spend money on going to the pictures. They aren't alone: four big cinema chains in Holland are boycotting the film and the Italians are rebelling, too.
Disney, which stands to lose upwards of £40million because of this row, says that 97 per cent of box office takings happen within eight weeks, and argues that it is only asking for this flexibility in the case of perhaps two movies a year.
Last week the company sent two executives from Hollywood to try to find a solution.
Burton himself transferred filming from Cornwall, where a lot of exterior scenes were shot, to Los Angeles, where the technology would be brought into play. Scenes were filmed in front of all-green backgrounds which were then overlaid digitally.
'The novelty of the green wears off very quickly,' Depp complained during filming. 'It's exhausting actually - we can't see what we are doing.'
Burton had lavender lenses fitted into his glasses to counter-balance the colour. This way of working brought the director great freedoms, particularly when it came to playing with scale.
Glover's Knave Of Hearts is half real, half digital. In the film he is 71/2ft tall, so on set Glover wore a green suit and a pair of green stilts. For the final film, his entire body, costume and cape were computer-generated - only his face was real.
Depp is lost in admiration for Burton. He says: 'He couldn't have bitten off anything bigger to chew. This is almost lunatic time. To choose to grab Alice In Wonderland, that in itself is one thing, and then to do it to the Tim Burton level is madness.'
Burton, stuck between a rock and a hard place over the distribution row, is keeping his own counsel. But there is no doubt he will be deeply disappointed if the film over which he has taken such care is available to only a fraction of its potential audience.
As he says: 'When Lewis Carroll wrote his Alice stories nearly 150 years ago, he was taking a big chance that people would understand and appreciate that he was trying to do something unusual.
'Now, it's our turn to take our own chances - and I don't think we've let him down.'
• Alice In Wonderland has its charity premiere in London next Thursday and is released on March 5.