by Jeff Meyers
"You're mad, bonkers ... but I'll tell you a secret — all the best people are." —The Mad Hatter
As an exercise in delightfully deranged, comically monstrous visuals, Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is everything you hoped it would be. Plants with human faces, checkerboard landscapes, forced perspective, day-glo colors and macabre pranks abound in his recasting of Lewis Carroll's classic as a warped tale of Victorian-age feminist empowerment. There are scads of freakishly lovely and meticulously rendered 3-D images, yet his hyperactive Alice lacks depth and, more tragically, wonder.
It's been 13 years since Alice (In Treatment's Mia Wasikowska) fell down the rabbit hole, and her memories of Wonderland have faded into dreams. But now, on the day she's expected to be engaged to an insufferably priggish lord, she finds herself tumbling back into the realm of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), Blue Caterpillar (voiced by Alan Rickman) and Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry). It seems war is afoot in "Underland," where the hydrocephalic-headed, decapitation-happy Red Queen (Helen Bonham Carter) sics her Bandersnatch, Jabberwocky (voiced by Christopher Lee), and Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), on anyone allied with her pacifist (and far prettier) sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway).
Burton restrains his more indulgent instincts yet manages to deliver deliriously inspired visuals and inventive camerawork. Unfortunately, Alice feels emotionally detached and, at times, rushed. Part of the problem is Burton's inability to generate tension or suspense — something he's never had a particular talent for. The bigger issue, however, is Linda Woolverton's conventional scripting, which bounces from scene to scene and character to character without much development or attention. Alice doesn't really go on any kind of personal journey. She starts as a strong-willed young girl and ends a strong-willed young girl. Little is discovered as she stumbles through encounters, each calculated to deliver a few minutes of eye-popping action or eccentric comic relief. It's an overstructured and uninspired approach to Carroll's anything-can-happen sense of chaos and whimsy. One has to wonder if Disney's penchant for sanitizing its films played a role.
Still, Burton scores points for his clever skewering of Victorian mores (the members of the Red Queen's entourage fake their deformities to match her enormous head) and delight in undermining British propriety. Too bad Woolverton's gothic grrl-power message is too thin to gain any dramatic traction.
The cast is mostly terrific, with Bonham Carter's hilariously nasty queen dominating every scene she's in, oily Crispin Glover making a welcome return to the screen, and gangly Depp reining in a role he could have easily overcooked. Sad, bizarre and empathetic, his accent-shifting Mad Hatter always engages — but one has to question the choice of making him a victim of PTSD. The otherwise engaging Wasikowska, regrettably, struggles to find nuance in her one-note Alice, and Hathaway's cartoonishly kooky White Queen, with her exaggerated gestures and tiptoe gait, just falls flat. Alice's British voice talent, on the other hand, does a first-rate job of filling out their barely sketched CGI critters, with Matt Lucas' creepy Tweedledum and Tweedledee looking like they stepped out of a Stasys Eidrigevicius theater poster.
Ultimately, Burton's Alice in Wonderland is best viewed as a hallucinatory amusement park ride cluttered with striking visual freakouts, a wonderfully menacing score by Danny Elfman and enough fantastical grotesqueries (both cuddly and beastly) to carry you past its underimagined storyline.
Jeff Meyers writes about film for Metro Times. Send comments to email@example.com.