Into the dark you tumble in Alice in Wonderland, Tim Burton’s garish and periodically amusing repo of the Lewis Carroll hallucination Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. It’s a long fall turned long haul, despite the Burtonian flourishes—the pinch of cruelty, the mordant wit—that animate the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Played by Mia Wasikowska, Alice looks a touch dazed: She seems to have left her pulse above ground when she fell down the rabbit hole of Burton’s imagination.
Burton has done his best work with contemporary stories, so it’s curious that he’s turned his sights on another 19th century tale. Perhaps after slitting all those throats in his adaptation of Sweeney Todd, he thought he would chop off a few heads. Whatever his inspiration, he has tackled this new story with his customary mix of torpor and frenzy. After a short glance back at Alice’s childhood and an equally brief look at her present, he sends the 19-year-old on her way, first down the hole and then into a dreamscape—unfortunately tricked out with 3D that distracts more than it delights—where she meets a grinning cat and a lugubrious caterpillar, among other creatures.
Dark and grim: Burlon’s ‘Wonderland’ isn’t inviting or attractive
Dark and sometimes grim, this isn’t your great grandmother’s Alice. Here she mostly serves as a foil for the top biller Johnny Depp, who (yes, yes) plays the Mad Hatter, and Burton’s bright and leaden whimsies.
First thought up by Carroll in a rowboat in which one of the passengers was the 10-year-old Alice Liddell, the object of his much-debated love, Wonderland (1865) is, among many other things, a testament to glorious nonsense as well as an inspiration for dark thoughts. It’s a total (head) trip, one that starts and stops and doesn’t fit easily into the mainstream narrative mould, which could explain why the screenwriter Linda Woolverton has given Alice a backstory.
Since narrative momentum isn’t Burton’s strength, Alice in Wonderland probably seemed a good fit for him, and there are moments when his transparent delight in the material lifts the movie and even carries it forward. His Wonderland (here, Underland) isn’t inviting or attractive. The colours are often bilious, though the palette also turns gunmetal grey, bringing to mind Sweeney Todd. There’s a suggestively nightmarish aspect to Alice’s journey, as when she steps on some severed heads in the Red Queen’s moat as if they were stones. Bonham Carter makes you hear the petulant child in her barbarism and the wounded woman too. She rocks the house and the movie.
Depp’s strenuously flamboyant turn embodies the best and worst of Burton’s film-making tendencies even as the actor brings his own brand of cinematic crazy to the tea party. With his Kabuki-white face, the character seems to have been calculated to invoke Heath Ledger’s Joker. But Depp doesn’t have much to do, which he proves as he flirts wildly with the camera. The only time the character hooks you is in the shivery moment when his gaze turns predatory as he looks at Alice, who, every inch a Tim Burton Goth Girl, from her corpse-like pallor to her enervated presence, presents a more convincing vision of death than of sex.
Burton’s heroine is a wan figure to hang an entire world on, and Wasikowska, who’s a livelier, truer presence in the forthcoming The Kids Are All Right, barely registers among Burton’s clanging and the computer-generated galumphing. This isn’t an impossible story to translate to the screen, as the Czech film-m-aker Jan Svankmajer showed with Alice (1988), where the divide between reality and fantasy blurs as it does in dreams. It’s just hard to know why Burton, who doesn’t seem much interested in Alice, bothered.
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Alice in Wonderland released in theatres on Friday.