It’s difficult to think of a more inspired match than seasoned maverick Tim Burton working his skewed magic on Lewis Carroll’s revered 19th century surreal fantasy.
Burton – following 20-odd screen adaptations over 100 years - radically retools the original story, excising certain plot strands and drawing characters (eg Tweedledee, Tweedledum, the Jabberwocky) from the literary sequel Through The Looking Glass.
The result is a streamlined narrative punctuated by celebrated scenes such as the croquet match with flamingo head mallets all unfolding through an atmosphere of dark dread as the Red Queen tightens her vicious grip on Wonderland.
Australian actress Mia Wasikowska is an inspired choice as Alice, a feisty, self-confident 19-year-old who finds herself in Wonderland after fleeing an unsolicited wedding proposal from a vile ginge during a ghastly Victorian society garden party.
Fluctuating in size quicker than Oprah Winfrey, she is led by the White Rabbit to fellow outsider and ally against the Red Queen, the Mad Hatter, exquisitely played by Johnny Depp with an air of melancholy goodness.
Together with Tweedledee & Tweedledum (both played by Matt Lucas), Stephen Fry’s smokily ethereal Cheshire Cat plus Alan Rickman’s 40-a-day caterpillar Absolem, they unite under the banner of the one decent royal – Anne Hathaway’s cute but scary White Queen.
Burton cleverly simplifies the plot to produce an unsettling fantasy, touching on morality, madness and mentalist catering – the Mad Hatter’s tea party attended by Babs Windsor’s Dormouse and Paul Whitehouse as the March Hare takes place with an air of nervous terror to the accompaniment of clinking china.
However, it is Bonham Carter’s nastily imperious Red Queen – imagine the snootily patrician tones of Queen Elizabeth II spitting out lethal venom – that provides the evil core to the story, a paranoid despot whose massive head constrains a spiteful mind.
Unlike the overblown techno-narcissism of Avatar, the 3D in use here firmly serves the plot and is never allowed to dominate proceedings, no matter how outlandish they become.
If it could be bottled up, the label would read “watch me.”