‘Alice in Wonderland’ hits theaters next Friday.
LOS ANGELES — Tim Burton, girlfriend Helena Bonham Carter and pal Johnny Depp are starting to look like wayfarers you might find somewhere along the Yellow Brick Road.
Their latest journey into fantasy land takes them through the looking glass with a new rendition of “Alice in Wonderland,” featuring Depp as the addle-brained Mad Hatter and Bonham Carter as the bratty Red Queen.
“Alice in Wonderland” is the sixth-straight movie Burton has directed featuring Bonham Carter and the fourth-straight that also co-starred Depp, who has collaborated with the director on seven films. It will hit theaters next Friday.
Burton has cast Bonham Carter as a witch (“Big Fish”), a chimpanzee (“Planet of the Apes”) and a dead chick (“Corpse Bride”) and presented Depp as a candy-making kook (“Charlie and the Chocolate Factory”), a cross-dressing filmmaker (“Ed Wood”) and a kid with dangerously sharp fingers (“Edward Scissorhands”).
He cast both Bonham Carter and Depp as serial killers who used their victims as meat for pies in “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.”
“Alice in Wonderland” marks Burton’s latest reunion with Walt Disney Studios, where he started his career as an animator 30 years ago. “It’s the weirdest thing, but it’s true. I didn’t really realize it, but I go, I do, I get kicked out, and I go, and I do, I get kicked out. I think this is the third or fourth or fifth time that’s happened,” Burton, 51, said in an interview.
Burton’s comings and goings at Disney sum up his professional life in Hollywood, where weird sensibilities such as his usually are snuffed out before they get a chance to catch fire.
After his early stint at Disney, Burton returned there to make “Ed Wood,” a box-office dud that has gone on to become a cult favorite. Burton came back to produce the animated tale “The Nightmare Before Christmas.”
Burton’s first tour at Disney was an assistant animator for 1981’s “The Fox and the Hound” and a designer for 1985’s fantasy flop “The Black Cauldron.”
“I was specifically working on drawing cute foxes,” Burton said. “Once they saw how bad at that I was, what they did was, they kind of liked just my conceptual drawings, so on ‘Black Cauldron,’ I spent like a year doing concept drawings. That was great because I just got to explore ideas.”
Disney didn’t use Burton’s ideas, but while there, he made the animated short “Vincent,” featuring the voice of “Edward Scissorhands” co-star Vincent Price, and the fantasy short “Frankenweenie,” about a boy who resurrects his dog after it’s killed by a car.
The land of Mickey Mouse and Snow White did not know what to make of a filmmaker who brings domestic pets back to life. So Burton moved on to Warner Bros. for his 1985 feature debut.
“Pee-wee’s Big Adventure” became a surprise hit, audiences warming to the offbeat tone Burton brought to Paul Reubens’ effete man-child. Burton scored again with “Beetle Juice” and “Batman” before beginning his long partnership with Depp on “Edward Scissorhands.”
“The base level of the relationship is this — the amount of trust. I certainly trust him implicitly. I would do anything, try anything that he wanted me to,” Depp said. “There’s never been a clash, there’s never been a, ‘Well, I disagree,’ or anything like that. There’s never been that, oddly.”
Bonham Carter said Burton at work resembles an eager child having a grand play date with friends.
“Mind and body, the whole thing, the whole package is a big kid,” Bonham Carter said of Burton, with whom she has two children. “There’s no inner child. It’s all outer, honestly. That’s him. Our kids are slowly, quickly overtaking him, actually.
“He’s at play when he’s directing, and it’s fun to watch. He’s got a lot of glee. That’s why he and Johnny get on so well, because they’re kids.”
On “Alice in Wonderland,” Burton combines live action with trippy computer animation to capture the absurdist realm created by Lewis Carroll in his books.
Burton’s take on the tale presents Alice (Mia Wasikowska) as a 19-year-old with no memory of her adventures in Wonderland as a little girl. About to become engaged to a dreary aristocrat, Alice runs away, toppling down the rabbit hole again and emerging in the middle of a conflict between the despotic Red Queen and her noble sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway).
All the Carroll favorites are on hand, including the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat, the March Hare and Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
After such a big production, Burton is going smaller with the next film, a feature-length, stop-motion version of “Frankenweenie.” Burton also has been developing an adaptation of the vampire soap opera “Dark Shadows,” which could pair him again with Depp.
With their early films, it was a constant battle to cast Depp, who tended toward oddball roles and had no box-office pull. After Depp hit it big with “Pirates of the Caribbean,” studios have been eager to let Burton use his favorite star, though the director said he and his leading man always are under suspicion.
“He’s got the success of ‘Pirates,’ but once they worry about you, they always worry about you. Once they think you’re weird, you can make a trillion dollars, but you’re still weird,” Burton said. “You think after a while, you’ve proven yourself with a few successes, but still, each movie is a real difficulty to get made.”
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