“You’ve lost your muchness,” Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter remarks to his newly shrunken teenage friend, and much the same could be said of Tim Burton in the wake of his encounter with a Victorian-era heroine of imaginative powers even wilder than his own. Quite like what one would expect from such a match of filmmaker and material and also something less, this “Alice in Wonderland” has its moments of delight, humor and bedazzlement. But it also becomes more ordinary as it goes along, building to a generic battle climax similar to any number of others in CGI-heavy movies of the past few years. A humongous Disney promo effort and inevitable curiosity about the first post-“Avatar” 3D extravaganza will pull wondrous early B.O. numbers, although long-term forecast could become clouded by the imminent arrival of further high-profile kid-friendly features.
It all seemed like such a natural fit — Burton and Lewis Carroll, Depp as the key component in fiction’s most eccentric tea party, and 3D put at the service of a story offering unlimited visual possibilities. Not that it’s gone all wrong; not entirely. But for all its clever design, beguiling creatures and witty actors, the picture feels far more conventional than it should; it’s a Disney film illustrated by Burton, rather than a Burton film that happens to be released by Disney.
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Although it draws heavily upon both Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (published in 1865) and “Through the Looking Glass” (1871), the script by Linda Woolverton (a Disney standard-bearer with a major hand in “Beauty and the Beast,” “The Lion King” and “Mulan”) crucially skews the material by advancing the leading lady’s age from pre-pubescence to 19. The main upshot of the change is that this trip to Underland, as it’s referred to here, becomes Alice’s second, not first. The not-inconsiderable benefit is that enables Alice to be played by Mia Wasikowska, an actress of willowy, Gwyneth Paltrowesque beauty but, more important here, of a pale but powerful resolve that confers upon the picture any gravity it may possess.
After an over-the-rooftops cinematic entry into London that could as easily have alighted at the residence of Sweeney Todd (or, for that matter, Ebenezer Scrooge), a delirious little Alice awakens from yet another nightmare to ask her father, “Do you think I’ve gone ’round the bend?” To which he offers the encouraging, tone-setting reply, “All the best people are.”
Thirteen years later, in an amusing framing story invented by Woolverton, a pale, sulky Alice is put up for an arranged marriage by her widowed mother (the enchantingly mordant Lindsay Duncan) with the twitty son of an aristocratic family. The lavish would-be engagement party quickly and appealingly establishes Alice as an impudent contrarian with a mind of her own; when, in front of hundreds of elegant guests, she is meant to accept the fatuous lad’s proposal, she cries out, “I think I need a moment!” and promptly follows a white rabbit down a hole.
Just as, at such a transformative interlude, “The Wizard of Oz” switched from black-and-white to color, this should have marked the point when “Please Put on 3D Glasses!” flashed onscreen and everything took on an all-consuming, eye-popping look (the 3D in the garden party sequence is actually banal, even poorly judged). In fact, Alice enters a verdant, overgrown world that undeniably resembles “Avatar’s” Pandora and encounters at least one creature, a skeptical caterpillar, that actually is blue.
As things get “curiouser and curiouser,” she also meets the round, argumentative twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum; the vaporous and grinning Cheshire Cat; the manic March Hare; Depp’s Mad Hatter, with saucer eyes, Bozo-like red hair and gap teeth that bring Madonna to mind; and, inevitably, the fearsome Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who spares Alice from her favorite edict — “Off with their heads!” — because she, like all the others, needs to know if this is “the” Alice who visited so many years before.
Script arguably needed a narrative backbone of a sort not to be found in the episodic books, and Woolverton has obliged. Unfortunately, it’s one that turns “Alice” into a formulaic piece of work, which Carroll’s creation was anything but. Climactic action setpiece, with an unlikely young warrior taking on a fearsome beast while gobs of CGI soldiers clash, smacks of “The Lord of the Rings,” “Harry Potter,” “The Golden Compass,” “The Chronicles of Narnia” and any number of other such recent ventures. Thus does “Alice” become normalized, a tilt Burton is surprisingly incapable of opposing.
A jaw-dropping coda pivots on a “visionary” character’s forthcoming voyage to open up trade with China, provoking musings about Disney’s rationale for this sort of corporate encomium to a vast young market, as well as thoughts of a never-to-be-made sequel set among 19th-century Chinese as inscrutable and combative as the population of Underland.
To be sure, the design, effects, makeup and technical work is of a high order. Other than Alice, the most memorable characters are the wonderful hunting dog Bayard and the elusive Cheshire Cat, superbly voiced by Timothy Spall and Stephen Fry, respectively.
Among thesps whose faces can be discerned, Bonham Carter authoritatively takes dudgeon to a new high as the Red Queen. Unfortunately, Anne Hathaway is miscast as her sister, the White Queen, as her white hair and black eyebrows look weird and she’s not temperamentally suited to the role’s benign superciliousness. And Depp is Depp, slip-siding among moods, accents, looks, rhythms and keys like a jazz player on his own wavelength, to disarming, if transient, effect.