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Movie Review

Alice in Wonderland

Nonsense doesn’t live here anymore: Burton’s 3-D ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is entertaining but not nearly twisted enough

By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / March 5, 2010

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If you’re like me, you’re heading into “Alice in Wonderland’’ not expecting a faithful adaptation of Lewis Carroll but a good Tim Burton movie. Possibly a great Tim Burton movie. And the first few scenes don’t disappoint: Mia Wasikowska is dreamily pallid as the 18-year-old Alice, a lanky pre-Raphaelite bucking against her rigid Victorian society. A garden party at which the girl is proposed to by an upper-class twit (Leo Bill) is a visual marvel of topiary and pastel-blue skies, as though a 19th-century postcard had been hand-tinted by a surrealist.

Then the movie goes down the rabbit hole and takes the wonder with it. There’s nothing in itself wrong with a revisionist “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’’ - lord knows, dozens of other moviemakers, good, bad, and indifferent, have taken a crack at it. But where Burton and his screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, go astray is turning this new 3-D version - a sequel, really, about a grown Alice returning to the psychic dreamworld of her childhood - into a fantasy adventure that looks like every other CGI epic out there.

All right, a Burton-ized CGI epic, with the filmmaker’s trademark gnarled trees, a Tweedledum and Tweedledee (both played by Matt Lucas) who resemble miniature Pugsleys, and Danny Elfman’s score galumphing in the background. And of course Burton’s partner, Helena Bonham Carter, as the Queen of Hearts, her gigantic cranium towering over an itsy-bitsy body like an evil bobblehead.

It says a lot about this movie, though, that Carter’s role is now essentially a reprise of the White Witch in the Narnia films, a beastly diva who needs to be vanquished for peace to reign once more over Underland (not Wonderland; apparently the young Alice was hard of hearing). Nor do you need to be a film freak to ID the movie’s other elements and influences; you just need to have seen enough blockbusters and played a few video games.

There are bits of “The Lord of the Rings,’’ “Shrek,’’ “The Wizard of Oz,’’ “The Princess Bride,’’ even “The Golden Compass,’’ all given a wash of chic Gothic gloom. I’m not accusing Burton of intentional theft, just of working within a profitable mainstream fantasy-action framework that by now feels over familiar even to the 12-year-old who sat next to me at the screening. In its big-budget extraordinariness, “Alice’’ is awfully . . . ordinary.

How’s Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter? Enjoyable and also typical of the movie’s problems. The Hatter’s now a major supporting role, Alice’s guide and heroic protector as she seeks the Vorpal Sword and gets ready to battle the Jabberwocky on Frabjous Day. (Yes, the script is that literal.) Depp is unrecognizable under his Carrot Top fright-wig and kabuki pancake, but he brings the wounded gentleness of Edward Scissorhands to his brief bouts of sanity.

For the first time, though, the star feels over-indulged by his longtime director, as though playing a madman gave Depp license to run amok. (It doesn’t.) This isn’t a bad performance - provided you can wipe one dreadful break-dance routine from your mind - just an unstructured one.

Most of the thought, as you’d expect, has gone into the art direction. The look of “Alice in Wonderland’’ is a mixture of the intriguingly grotesque and the big-movie banal, with a heaping side dish of Maxfield Parrish. There are sublime inventions - the stressed-out little monkeys, pigs, and frogs who serve as the Queen’s minions - and Colleen Atwood’s costumes adapt to Alice’s changing size with ingenious grace. But the visuals are just as often busy without being interesting, and Burton uses 3-D in shockingly hackneyed ways. (Watch out, the March Hare just threw a teacup at your head.) It’s a movie to make you appreciate everything “Avatar’’ does so astonishingly right.

There are gems to be found in the vocal performances. Stephen Fry turns the Cheshire Cat into the film’s Puck-ish wild card, Timothy Spall gives gravitas to a heroic talking bloodhound (maybe he got lost on the way to “Up’’), and much more of Alan Rickman’s big blue caterpillar would have been welcome. Of the human actors, it’s good to see Crispin Glover channel his inner Rathbone as the Knave of Hearts, but Anne Hathaway, abandoned by her director, flails as the Glinda-like White Queen. Even Wasikowska ends up more oppressed by the film’s own machinations than by the stuffy Victorians above ground.

What you miss above all is nonsense - the subversive upending of logic and proper behavior that Carroll packed into every sideways phrase he wrote. An “Alice’’ adaptation doesn’t have to be faithful in any aspect but that; without nonsense, it’s just another artifact of the prevailing consumer culture. Burton is that rarity, an outsider who has long been embraced by the mainstream, and success has finally dulled his edge. “Alice in Wonderland,’’ sadly, could have been made by anyone. It’s not insane, and that hurts.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@globe.com.

ALICE IN WONDERLAND Directed by: Tim Burton

Written by: Linda Woolverton, based (sort of) on the book by Lewis Carroll

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Crispin Glover, Anne Hathaway, the voices of Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry

At: Boston Common, Fenway, suburbs, Jordan’s IMAX Reading and Natick

Running time: 108 minutes

Rated: PG (fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar)

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