Alice Is Back in ‘Wonderland’

Tim Burton seems to have been on creative autopilot these past few years. Impressive, considering his most gaudy and lavish films have all been produced within this blank-slate directorial sleep-walking. While great licenses lead to gorgeous visuals and inventive design, that Expressionistic spark that flavored Burton’s directing seems to have been Ritalin-ed out of his system. But at least “Alice in Wonderland” is in 3-D, right?

There are few books that can claim so many varied adaptations as Lewis Carroll’s romp through a collection of drug-induced vignettes. From silent films to anime, both “Alice in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass” have been remade and re-invented regularly throughout the history of cinema. With apparent knowledge of this storied past, Burton’s “Wonderland” skirts most of the comparisons to former adaptations (including Disney’s own multiple former efforts) by setting itself up as a sequel to the Carroll plotline. While it makes sense from a business perspective, the move still feels unnecessary, as the original material’s open-ended nature could lead to dozens more interpretations.

19-year-old Alice stands on the precipice of unhappy matrimony when she re-stumbles down the rabbit hole into the titular acid trip of a world. Struck by the should-be-illegal-by-now writer’s cop out amnesia routine, Alice is reintroduced to a world now strictly divided between the Red Queen (a hybridization of Carroll’s Red Queen and Queen of Hearts characters) and the White Queen. On the brink of an all-out war between the clans, Alice must discover her destiny and stand against the tyrannical Red Queen, finding the usual cast of delirious side characters along the way.

It’s quite astounding how the story of “Alice” manages to avoid being a cash-in on the “Wonderland” universe by skipping ahead a few years to become a cash-in on generic epic children’s fantasies. The distancing from the source material would imply an intended creative direction, but it seems that the Mouse just didn’t want the film to interfere with the theme park rides it had already set up. Not helping matters is a completely bland lead in newcomer Mia Wasikowska, whose Alice is a complete non-entity for most of the film. While not an issue in previous versions where the narrative focus was on the surroundings, the movie continually shoves the camera back towards the banal heroine, sometimes even at the expense of the other, more dynamic characters.

The denizens of Wonderland run the expected gamut of stellar to tedious. Johnny Depp’s much publicized Mad Hatter is just the latest in a line of needlessly wacky characters, giving even the actor’s take on Willy Wonka some retroactive merit. The majority of the other characters fare much better, with a roster of British talent rivaled only by the Harry Potter series. Stephen Fry’s cheshire cat, Michael Sheen’s white rabbit, Alan Rickman’s blue caterpillar, and Timothy Spall’s Bayard all exhibit charm and intrigue in their wistful appearances throughout the film.

Helena Bonham Carter’s Red Queen finally seems to be the channel the actress’ erratic energy has been searching for, the monarch effortlessly dancing the comic-frightful line with ease. The same cannot be said for her opposite, Anne Hathaway’s White Queen, who manages the spacey fantasy character motif a little too well, appearing at times vapid and lifeless. If the story had been the cavalcade of creepily cool Wonderland folk that Carroll originally wrote, “Alice” would have been a much more magical film. As it stands, its leash on Alice is just a little too tight.

But, like most films flirting with the third dimension, the ticket price comes down to the offered spectacle. And while “Alice’s” CG sets are deep and bursting with decadent color, the 3-D effects most often surface as the cheap, object being thrown at seen material that killed the format back in the 1970s. The bombastic art direction still looks better with the glasses on, but the effect is tacked on at its obvious instances. The cinematography is capable, adding that rush of camera movement required to adequately take in the zealous design, but the soul of Burton’s more purposeful frame direction is noticeably absent. Even with most scenes bursting with props and costumes fitting of the wondrous locale, it’s all presented as an art project rather than a film with at least a monochrome of resonance.

“Alice in Wonderland” is pretty, – very pretty. The art direction and costume design already set the bar high for the rest of the year, and the majority of the supporting cast turns in gleeful performances with their well-known archetypes. But there is a palatable lack of heart to the project, a sense of phoned-in spectacle beneath the talents of those behind the scenes. So while the spectacle barely keeps the trip to the theater worthwhile, you can catch an important date elsewhere.