You have to give Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland time to get going. For a long, terrifying while, the movie looks as if it’s going to be just like every picture Burton has directed since 1994’s Ed Wood (with the notable exception of Sweeney Todd): A lavishly designed, visually entrancing, emotionally hollow bore.
The early going confirms your suspicions. A 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska), having dismissed the fantastical adventures in Wonderland she experienced in Lewis Carroll’s novels as mere dream, once again chases a smartly dressed rabbit and falls down a hole. A crippling stupor and much seat-fidgeting set in as Alice reacquaints herself with the denizens of this strange world: The bickering twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both played by Matt Lucas), the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) and the grinning Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry). Even Alice’s trademark “Curiouser and curiouser” remark falls flat. “Duller and duller” would have been more apt.
Most important, there is the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the only character in the bunch not computer-generated. The Mad Hatter seems a little less mad and a lot more morose than you may remember. He’s sad, the way most of Wonderland’s residents are, due to the Red Queen (a delirious, scene-stealing Helena Bonham Carter), who wrested the kingdom from her do-goody sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and now rules mercilessly, shouting “Off with their head!” to anyone who dares so much as look at her the wrong way.
Because Depp is under the orange frock of hair and oversized eyes, the Hatter’s role is greatly (and pointlessly) increased in the story, which was written by Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast, The Lion King) in a disappointingly literal-minded manner. Alice in Wonderland is curiously devoid of metaphors and allegories about a young woman on the cusp of adulthood, about to be engaged by arrangement to a loathsome toad of a man she can barely stomach. The lack of psychological subtext is hugely disappointing.
But wait. Just around the time Alice and the Red Queen first meet, and the tyrant with the giant head and tiny body shows her guest her preferred choice of footstool (a live pig), Alice in Wonderland starts to do something different: It begins to develop narrative steam. At this point Carroll fans will grate their teeth and start groping in the dark for vegetables to throw at the screen, because Burton has settled on the hoariest of all fantasy-adventure tropes — the oblivious warrior who discovers she is destined to save the world — as the narrative spine for his wild tale. Why Burton didn’t just make a straightforward adaptation of Carroll’s novel is unclear. Perhaps the director felt the tale was too familiar to bother remaking.
But although the replacement the filmmakers came up with will rankle purists, there is considerable fun to be had in Alice in Wonderland, particularly in the movie’s second half, if you’re willing to look past the clichés and savor Burton’s inventions: The blood-red moat littered by bobbing severed heads that surrounds the Red Queen’s castle; the warrior Dormouse (Barbara Windsor) plucking out the eyeball of a rampaging monster with a sewing needle, the way you’d skewer an olive with a toothpick; the disgusting ingredients the perky White Queen cheerfully mixes into a potion to help shrink Alice from her giant size; the notion of Depp and Crispin Glover (Knave of Hearts) — two of Hollywood’s all-time great weirdos — squaring off on a gigantic chessboard.
Unlike Avatar, Alice in Wonderland was not shot with 3D cameras — the process was added in post-production — which explains why the movie looks like such a blurry mess when viewed through a pair of those annoying plastic glasses. Throughout the screening I attended, I kept wishing I could watch the movie in plain 2D: The extra dimension adds nothing but distraction and headaches. Burton’s framing and imagery are striking enough that they don’t need artificial adornment. Alice in Wonderland isn’t quite the natural fit of director and material that it seemed to be on paper, but most of Burton’s recent movies have been far more disappointing.
“Do you think I’ve gone ’round the bend?” a young Alice, fearing for her sanity, asks her father. “All the best people are,” he replies. Only Burton could make going a little crazy seem like a heartwarming way for a dad to bond with his child.
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Anne Hathaway, Matt Lucas, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Alan Rickman, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse, Timothy Spall.
Director: Tim Burton.
Screenwriter: Linda Woolverton. Based on the book by Lewis Carroll.
Producers: Tim Burton, Joe Roth, Jennifer Todd, Suzanne Todd.
A Walt Disney Pictures release. Running time: 109 minutes. Mock violence. Playing at area theaters.