What’s a Nice Girl Doing in This Hole?
Into the dark you tumble in “Alice in Wonderland,” Tim Burton’s busy, garish and periodically amusing repo of the Lewis Carrollhallucination “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.” It’s a long fall turned long haul, despite the Burtonian flourishes — the pinch of cruelty, the mordant wit — that animate the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and the porker that slides under her feet with a squeal. “I love a warm pig belly for my aching feet,” the queen tells Alice. Played by Mia Wasikowska, Alice looks a touch dazed: she seems to have left her pulse above ground when she fell down the rabbit hole of Mr. Burton’s imagination.
Mr. Burton has done his best work with contemporary stories, so it’s curious if not curiouser that he’s turned his sights on another 19th-century tale. Perhaps after slitting all those throats in his adaptation of “Sweeney Todd,” he thought he would chop off a few heads. Whatever his inspiration, he has tackled this new story with his customary mix of torpor and frenzy. After a short glance back at Alice’s childhood and an equally brief look at her present, he sends the 19-year-old on her way, first down the hole and then into a dreamscape — unfortunately tricked out with 3-D that distracts more than it delights — where she meets a grinning cat and a lugubrious caterpillar, among other fantastical creatures.
Dark and sometimes grim, this isn’t your great-grandmother’s Alice or that of Uncle Walt, who was disappointed with the 1951 Disney version of “Alice in Wonderland.” “Alice has no character,” said a writer who worked on that project. “She merely plays straight man to a cast of screwball comics.” Of course the character of Carroll’s original Alice is evident in each outrageous creation she dreams up in “Wonderland” and in the sequel, “Through the Looking-Glass,” which means that she’s a straight man to her own imagination. (She isWonderland.) Here she mostly serves as a foil for the top biller Johnny Depp, who (yes, yes) plays the Mad Hatter, and Mr. Burton’s bright and leaden whimsies.
First thought up by Carroll in a rowboat in which one of the passengers was the 10-year-old Alice Liddell, the object of his much-debated love, “Wonderland” (1865) is, among many other things, a testament to glorious nonsense as well as an inspiration for dark thoughts (about Carroll’s feelings for Liddell) and for lysergic works from the likes of David Lynch. It’s a total (head) trip, one that starts and stops and doesn’t fit easily into the mainstream narrative mold, which could explain why the screenwriter Linda Woolverton, borrowing both from “Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,”has given Alice a back story, a dash of psychology and a battle royal if, alas, not a pool of her own tears in which to swim.
Since narrative momentum isn’t Mr. Burton’s strength, “Alice in Wonderland” probably seemed a good fit for him, and there are moments when his transparent delight in the material lifts the movie and even carries it forward. His Wonderland (here, Underland) isn’t inviting or attractive. The colors are often bilious, though the palette also turns gunmetal gray, bringing to mind “Sweeney Todd.” There’s a suggestively nightmarish aspect to Alice’s journey, as when she steps on some severed heads in the Red Queen’s moat as if they were stones. The queen herself is a horror: Bette Davis as Elizabeth I and reconfigured as a bobble-head doll. Ms. Bonham Carter makes you hear the petulant child in her barbarism and the wounded woman too. She rocks the house and the movie.
And she does, even though the character is a harridan cliché who, smitten with her knave (Crispin Glover) and clutching her power, rules with a boom. (“Off with his head!”) She eventually dukes it out with her rival and sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, gliding like an ice dancer), who enlists Alice’s help. There’s more, including computer-generated flowers, assorted 3-D projectiles and the usual British actors earning their pay, like the “Harry Potter” alumni Timothy Spall, Alan Rickman and Imelda Staunton. Mr. Burton lavishes his attention on the little things in “Wonderland” — the perfectly drawn red heart painted on the center of the Red Queen’s mouth, for instance — perhaps because nothing else claims his attention. He’s very bad with the awkward action scenes, maybe because he’s embarrassed that they even exist.
Mr. Depp’s strenuously flamboyant turn embodies the best and worst of Mr. Burton’s filmmaking tendencies even as the actor brings his own brand of cinematic crazy to the tea party. With his Kabuki-white face, the character seems to have been calculated to invoke Heath Ledger’s Joker, though at his amusing best the Hatter brings to mind a strung-out Carrot Top. But Mr. Depp doesn’t have much to do, which he proves as he wildly flirts with the camera. The only time the character hooks you is in the shivery moment when his gaze turns predatory as he looks at Alice, who, every inch a Tim Burton Goth Girl, from her corpselike pallor to her enervated presence, presents a more convincing vision of death than of sex.
That queasy, potentially rich and frightening moment expectedly fades as fast as the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), which doesn’t leave you with much else to hold onto, Alice included. Mr. Burton’s heroine is a wan figure to hang an entire world on, and Ms. Wasikowska, who’s a livelier, truer presence in the forthcoming “The Kids Are All Right,” barely registers among Mr. Burton’s clanging and the computer-generated galumphing. This isn’t an impossible story to translate to the screen, as the Czech filmmaker Jan Svankmajer showed with “Alice” (1988), where the divide between reality and fantasy blurs as it does in dreams. It’s just hard to know why Mr. Burton, who doesn’t seem much interested in Alice, bothered.
“Alice in Wonderland” is rated PG (Parental guidance suggested). It is a surprise (or not) that this movie, with its severed heads and Jabberwocky battle, is not rated PG-13, which serves as a warning for parents.
ALICE IN WONDERLAND
Opens on Friday nationwide.
Directed by Tim Burton; written by Linda Woolverton, based on “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass” by Lewis Carroll; director of photography, Dariusz Wolski; edited by Chris Lebenzon; music by Danny Elfman; costumes by Colleen Atwood; senior visual effects supervisor, Ken Ralston; makeup design by Valli O’Reilly; produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Joe Roth, Suzanne Todd and Jennifer Todd; released by Walt Disney Pictures. Running time: 1 hour 48 minutes.
WITH: Johnny Depp (Mad Hatter), Mia Wasikowska (Alice Kingsleigh), Anne Hathaway(White Queen), Helena Bonham Carter (Red Queen), Crispin Glover (Stayne-Knave of Hearts), Matt Lucas (Tweedledee and Tweedledum), Alan Rickman (Absolem the Caterpillar), Timothy Spall (Bayard the Bloodhound) and Imelda Staunton (Tall Flower Faces).