Once upon a time there was a young director named Tim Burton, and he created wonderfully bizarre and macabre worlds populated by a boy with scissors for hands and jack-o-lanterns that masquerade as Santa Claus. Then Tim met a girl named Alice, and all the wonder died.
Okay, maybe it didn't die, but it certainly went away on a hiatus that lasted 109 minutes.
A recent visit to the Tim Burton exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art' made a few things abundantly clear -- Burton has an aesthetic that he's honed since his teen years, and that he's best when truly twisted. Unfortunately, his vision doesn't shine through this looking glass, leaving Alice in Wonderland a smudged and pale reflection of something that could have been much sharper.
Burton's Alice in Wonderland is neither the original tale nor the sequel. Instead, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is a young woman expected to accept the impending marriage proposal from Lord Doofus, er, Hamish (Leo Bill), and settle into a nice, predictable life of corsets and other constraints. Instead, showing moxie and panache uncommon for her time and place, Alice follows a rabbit in a waistcoat down a hole and figures out the whole eat me/drink me bit as voiceovers ponder why she doesn't remember doing it the first time.
Finally Alice makes it through a door into Underland, which she mistakenly calls Wonderland, confronted by peril at every turn. She meanders through the land with the expected cast of characters, all debating whether she's that Alice: the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), the Tweedle brothers (Little Britain's Matt Lucas), White Rabbit (Frost/Nixon's Michael Sheen), and, of course, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Finally, Alice understands that it's up to her to end the tyrannical reign of the Red Queen and restore the benevolent White Queen to her proper position on the throne.
The problem with the story is that, despite the fairly steady action, it's boring. First Alice is big, then she's small, then she's living with the Red Queen under an assumed identity, then she's fighting a big creature that looks suspiciously like post-ascension Mayor Wilkins from Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Perhaps Wasikowska's lackluster performance is one of the reasons it's hard to engage. She certainly looks the part of an innocent blonde girl discovering a new world and her own self-worth, but she fails to connect with the audience any more than she does with the CGI characters that live in Underland. When a group of soldiers surround her, she doesn't wield the sword like a threat, she waves it around like she's lost and can't see the creatures advancing toward her.
Depp, unrecognizable behind the Mad Hatter's make-up and frizzy hair, is almost as omnipresent in Burton's films as Burton's wife, Bonham Carter. Depp plays the Mad Hatter as a fey caricature who wouldn't be at all interesting if it weren't for the particular actor beneath the guise. It's ultimately a forgettable role once you get past the imagery.
Bonham Carter, on the other hand, has a head three times too big for her tiny body as the Red Queen, and wrings her lines for every last laugh possible. While the most vile of characters, she's also the most fun. The contrast is even starker when comparing her with the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Looking as though she'd been rolled in confectioner's sugar, Hathaway waves her hands in the air and prances her way through the part. The odd moments when she drops her airs (and hands) are great, but too few.
What Burton does really well are the little things – the monkeys forced to hold candles or the pig that serves as the Red Queen's foot rest. And the Cheshire Cat is both fantastical and truly feline – any cat owner will recognize that he is one of the most realistic parts of the film. Otherwise, the big picture aspects of the film fall flat.
Speaking of flat, the film is being released in a 3D format, which surprisingly does little to add to the experience. Unlike the vivid visuals of Avatar, the effects here are jarring, blurry and distracting (this might have something to do with the conversion of the film into 3D, rather than being shot specifically for 3D as Avatar was). Some moments were clearly created just to capitalize on the technology, and are so forced that Wonderland gets left behind and Headacheville appears on the horizon.
The final moments of the film make one thing clear: Alice is a hero, the long-awaited savior of Underland. No one can argue that the newfound strength and confidence she takes with her back up the rabbit hole isn't a wonderful message to send to young girls. It's just too bad that the idea of Alice is more wonderful than the reality.