A magical trip to Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland (cert. PG) is huge fun, as director Tim Burton brings to the work imagination to match that of creator Lewis Carroll, helped by a linear storyline by screenwriter Linda Woolverton. Following almost a film convention, this version takes ideas and characters from Through the Looking Glass.
This includes the Jabberwock, a fearsome beast based on Tenniel’s contemporary illustration, which Alice has to slay on the “frabjous day”. The idea that Alice might fight the Jabberwock may come from Tenniel’s illustration, which could show a girl fighting the Jabberwock even though it’s a “he” who kills it in the poem. The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) reads the poem, in one of his saner moments.

Alice in sort of Joan of Arc armour is one of Burton’s inventions, but the main story is that this is a return trip for a 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) to be a main player in trying to rid Wonderland/Underland of the tyrannical Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). There are shades of Narnia (or Oz) as her sister, the usurped White Queen (Anne Hathaway), seeks to regain her throne.
Depp is magical as the Hatter, wondering if he really is mad, and the same could be wondered about the Red Queen. Bonham Carter plays her with a digitally enlarged head (her courtiers feign outlandish body parts in fawning sympathy) but the voice seems derived from Miranda Richardson’s marvellous Queen Elizabeth in Blackadder, and she’s given the name Iracebeth.

These two head a marvellous mostly British cast. Alan Rickman voices Absolem the caterpillar wreathed in smoke from his hookah, Stephen Fry is a wraith of a Cheshire Cat, Michael Sheen is the White Rabbit, and Barbara Windsor is the Dormouse convinced that this grown-up Alice is the wrong Alice.

Paul Whitehouse plays the March Hare and Timothy Spall a bloodhound, but the most unnerving sight is that Tweedledum and Tweedledee are both Matt Lucas. Crispin Glover plays Steyn, the Red Queen’s obsequious enforcer. Christopher Lee is the voice for “the Jabberwocky”.

In a preamble in the real world, Alice is trying to avoid engagement to a soppy aristocrat (Leo Bill) and Tim Piggott-Smith, Lindsay Duncan, Geraldine James, and Frances de la Tour play family members encouraging the match. Falling down a rabbit hole is a great escape.

Danny Elfman’s music spices up the whole thing, but of course it’s the visual excitement that makes the film. With the “live” action largely played in front of green screen, the cast and the technical crew have proved that CGI can come into its own on a film like this where imagination is everything, and you need to think six impossible things before breakfast.

Crazy Heart (cert. 15) brought Jeff Bridges his first Oscar® as washed-out country and western singer Bad Blake, who’s 57 going on 70. It’s based on Thomas Cobb’s 1987 novel, and writer-director Scott Cooper evokes a good feel for his subject, as Bad tours the American south-west in his battered Chevy Silverado, playing one-night stands and sometimes finishing his set before the drink kicks in.

A musician at one of Bad’s gigs asks if his reporter niece can interview him – Bad was once a star – and Jean (Maggie Gyllenhaal), divorced with a young son, finds more than a story. Their relationship stutters along with his frequent absences, and there’s a well-signalled sense that leaving her precious son Buddy (Jack Nation) in the care of this alcoholic is not a bright idea.

Bad, short on money, gets a break when one of his ex-band members Tommy Sweet (Colin Farrell), now a big star himself, invites Bad to be the support act to one of his shows. There’s a bit of history there, but patching up doesn’t seem too hard. What Tommy really wants is for Bad to write some new songs for him, but the muse has gone with the booze.

As what’s left of his life begins to disintegrate, not helped by falling asleep while driving, Bad faces up to a doctor listing the medical conditions that will kill him, and the crisis that may determine how long he’s got. Probably based on a fusion of real C&W artists’ lives, this fictional biopic has plenty of heart, and an ensemble cast with no real villain except whisky.

Robert Duvall, playing Bad’s old friend Wayne, even gets to sing the gospel-influenced Live Forever (during the film and over the end credits), but it’s Bridges and Farrell who just about convince us that they could be country music stars. New songs by T Bone Burnett and Stephen Bruton (who died last year and to whom the film is dedicated) are well worked in, and The Weary Kind (by Burnett and Ryan Bingham) won the Oscar for best new song.

My favourite scene (apart from a couple of homages to The Big Lebowski) was Bad’s verdict on the terrible boots Tommy Sweet is wearing – “Did the salesman threaten to shoot your dog?”