Vibrant, full of odd little creatures and flecked with dry wit, Alice in Wonderland reinterprets classic stories while embracing modern animation technology to the hilt. Featuring dense graphics and sumptuous aesthetics, director Tim Burton’s take on Lewis Carroll’s books (Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass) is all beauty and whimsy, but fails to make us care much about what happens to the hapless cast of characters.
The film, which opens today, follows 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) from a posh garden party into the fantasy world of Wonderland that she first knew as a young girl. Nothing here is as it seems and soon Alice is growing and shrinking with a bite of magic cake or a sip of special elixir before stepping out to meet the locals. Greeted by her new coterie of companions -- including the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) and Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas) -- the fair-skinned teen is suddenly forced into a face-off with destiny, in which she must dethrone the wicked Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and help the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) return to power.
While the new Alice in Wonderland never pulls us close to any of its characters, casting is one of its strong points. Wasikowska (previously of In Treatment) is a particularly stellar pick, as she displays girlishness and adult defiance to embody a character that walks the line between both. Above ground, Alice is beset with family politics, societal pressures and a general sense that there’s got to be more to life than getting married off to a nose-picking rich guy. Below ground, she’s thrust into the role of a child-warrior in a world where competing agendas vie for power, and everyone is wackier than she is.
The wackiest of Wonderland’s many oddballs is the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), whose moods change from moment to moment thanks to an overdose of Mercury (a notable detail that goes without mention). As Alice’s closest ally in Wonderland, the Hatter’s affection for her is one of the film’s few emotional anchors, and the pair’s ultimate parting is one of saddest moments of the movie. In contrast, the Red Queen serves largely as Alice’s comic relief, belting out orders and -- with a head that’s both literally and figuratively inflated -- bathing in the warmth of self-delusion and sycophantic praise.
Still, there are some dark undercurrents that never quite surface, and therefore never quite add up. At one point, the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) -- aka, the Red Queen’s houseboy -- pins Alice against a wall and nearly rips her clothes off. The White Queen, meanwhile, has either been A. eating a too much magic cake, B. working on rage issues or C. taking acting lessons from Johnny Depp, circa Pirates of the Caribbean.
Alice in Wonderland stays true to its roots as a lively and mildly subversive story, and benefits from Burton’s fanciful style and dedication to aesthetics. It misses the themes that made Carroll's books so good, and loses much of the original meaning.