Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass, though filled with references to Victorian Oxford, belong to the eternal realm of fancy and nonsense. Beginning with a child’s tendency to misunderstand the adult world, then putting it on the unsure footing of fantasy, wordplay, and circular logic, Carroll allows wonder and nightmares to live side by side. The Alice books have inspired an abundance of adaptations and spin-offs over the years, drawing everyone from Walt Disney to Jan Svankmajer to Tom Waits down the rabbit hole. The best adaptations have found ways to put a personal stamp on the familiar stories. Others have simply reproduced an Alice facsimile in the image of their own era.
Surprisingly, Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland belongs to the latter camp. That doesn’t necessarily make it a bad movie, just another frustratingly impersonal one from a director who once had trouble compacting his personality down to movie size. Filled with 3D-friendly CGI landscapes and roaring beasties, Burton’s Alice borrows characters and settings from Carroll, but otherwise trashes Wonderland (or “Underland,” as Disney veteran Linda Woolverton would have it in her screenplay). Gone: the liquid reality of dreams and a sense that anything can happen. In its place: another story of quests, destinies, and chosen ones. The Jabberwocky, March Hare, and Cheshire Cat all appear, but absent Carroll’s hallucinatory playfulness.
The winningly scowly Mia Wasikowska plays Alice, a 19-year-old who vaguely remembers a strange place that used to haunt her dreams, then gets a chance to revisit it after fleeing the marriage proposal of a twittish, titled suitor. Once in the land of Tweedles Dee and Dum, she encounters talking animals, a smoking caterpillar, and other colorful characters who suspect she’s the Alice fated to save them from the tyranny of the bulbous-headed Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). A curiously unmemorable Johnny Depp co-stars as a not-that-mad, intermittently Scottish Mad Hatter. As with most of his co-stars, even the reliably outré Crispin Glover, his performance too often defers to the unfailingly impressive special effects around him. In spite of the voice talents of Alan Rickman, Stephen Fry, and others, only Carter’s Red Queen—played as a petulant, lackey-surrounded movie star—peels herself off the page to become a memorable character. Everyone else mostly behaves like functionaries in yet another outsized battle between good and evil that plays like the best Chronicles Of Narnia movie never made. It’s Alice in name, but Alice’s spirit remains somewhere else.