Tim Burton's Alice In Wonderland is richly imagined and abundantly creative, so much so that it's impossible to watch this version of Lewis Carroll's classic without acknowledging the extraordinary amount of effort that must have gone into it. But the hard work of the filmmaker probably isn't the sort of thing you want to be thinking about on a trip to Wonderland, referred to as Underland in Burton's edition.
In adapting Carroll's tale for the screen – in trendy 3D, of course – Burton has brought his considerable powers to a story that has been given a contemporary gloss, picking up elements from Carroll and putting them through a Disney Cuisinart that turns Alice's story into a increasingly boisterous tale of female assertion, Alice as an avatar (you'll pardon the expression) of newfound identity.
Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is on a search to discover her true self – the right Alice as opposed to the Alice who is not quite the character the tale requires. The script by Linda Woolverton takes Alice on a second trip to Wonderland. She doesn't remember the first, which occurred when she was much younger. This time, Alice -- now 19 – tumbles down the rabbit hole in an attempt to flee a marriage proposal from the obviously dull Hamish (Leo Bill), a young man notable only for his pinched face and troubled powers of digestion.
Once in Wonderland, Alice navigates us through Burton's effects, beginning with the rotund duo, Tweedledee and Tweedledum (voiced by Matt Lucas). The mix of live actors and CGI creations proves reasonably seamless, but CGI trumps most of the live performances with Stephen Fry giving sly voice to the Cheshire Cat, a creature that can dissolve into thin air at a moment's notice, and Alan Rickman bringing Yoda-like wisdom to Absolem, the Blue Caterpillar who dispenses advice while puffing on his hookah. (Yes, we're talking smoking in a Disney movie, great puffy clouds of it.)
Burton has concocted a visual cornucopia, but among his human actors, only Helena Bonham Carter really stands out. Bonham Carter's Red Queen has a large head and a mercurial temperament that catapults her from unrestrained conviviality to off-with-their-heads fury. Bonham Cater essentially steals the show, although she's not always walking away with a grand prize.
Not every one fares quite as well. A one-note Crispin Glover shows up as the scowling Knave of Hearts. And Burton stalwart Johnny Deep portrays the Mad Hatter.
Part of the reason that Depp and Burton have worked so well together over the years (from Edward Scissorhands to Sweeney Todd) involves Depp's ready-for-anything attitude. But I quickly grew tired of him as the Hatter, a character that doesn't allow for much variation, a problem that troubles all of the actors and totally undermines Anne Hathaway, who's cast as the White Queen. Hathaway does her best to appear as if she's floating through every scene, a woman untethered from any earthly moorings. She's so detached, I half wondered whether someone hadn't filled her head with helium.
The story moves toward a battle between Alice and the fierce, dragon-like Jabberwocky, and although there are some nice humorous touches (The Red Queen using a pig as a footstool, for example), the movie embeds most of its madness in its visual fabric instead of teasing it to the surface where it belongs.
Missing from Burton's movie – which proves intermittently enjoyable -- is the tipsy Carroll quality that knocks us off our moorings. The story is told in straightforward fashion that misses the feeling that we've been shoved into a world that's ready to turn our heads inside out. I never felt as if Burton had pulled off the ultimate head trip, even when he was skillfully shifting perspectives as
Alice grew in size or turned into a shrunken miniature version of herself.
Put another way: I'd say Burton has met Carroll, and although both survive the encounter, neither comes out entirely victorious by the time Alice in 3D Land crosses the finish line.