Alice in Wonderland: movie review

( PG ) ( Monitor Movie Guide )

In Tim Burton’s hybrid ‘Alice in Wonderland,’ Johnny Depp plays a gentlemanly Mad Hatter to a very grown-up Alice.

Actor Johnny Depp is shown as The Mad Hatter in a scene from the film, "Alice in Wonderland."

The betting line on the new Disney 3-D “Alice in Wonderland” was that it would be marvelous because the imaginings of its director, Tim Burton, are pronouncedly in sync with Lewis Carroll’s. But are they really? The movie is a decidedly mixed bag, in part, because of the equally pronounced disparities between Burton and Carroll – and between Burton and Disney, for that matter.

When Burton made “Sweeney Todd,” he transformed Stephen Sondheim’s elegant blood sport into a charnel house. In “Alice in Wonderland,” Carroll’s maniacally witty and disturbing phantasmagoria inspires a lot of sinister Tim Burton-isms. The problem is, most of the Burton-isms are half-baked.

I wouldn’t have minded if Burton used Carroll as the merest of jumping-off points for his own nightmarish visions. What we have instead is a hybrid: Carroll’s hallucinatory wit crossed with Burton’s rank unseemliness rolled into Disney “wholesomeness.” (The script is by Linda Woolverton, who is credited on “The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Mulan.”) In the end, “Alice in Wonderland” doesn’t work either as visionary entertainment or as plain old family entertainment.

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Burton has lifted ample amounts from both “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass,” but, crucially, he sets the story, for the most part, 13 years ahead of the material in the books, so that Alice (Mia Wasikowska), instead of being a preteen, is 19. Alice’s journey via rabbit hole into Wonderland (called Underland here), represents her second, not first, such descent. And her escape is mundanely motivated: She cuts out on an arranged marriage to an upper-crust twit.

Wasikowski has a Pre-Raphaelite Goldilocks look that’s shimmeringly fine, and she gives Alice some much-needed backbone, too. Her ballast grounds her in the Underland, where the film becomes heavily computer-generated and expands into full-blown 3-D (though the above ground scenes are, uninterestingly, in 3-D, too). Alice holds her own with Absolem, the Blue Caterpillar (voiced with world-weary aplomb by Alan Rickman); Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas); the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry); the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen); and the hunting dog Bayard (Timothy Spall). She even stands up to the Red Queen, portrayed triumphantly by Helena Bonham Carter as a yowling oversized head atop a pint-sized body. (As for Anne Hathaway’s White Queen, the less said the better – she’s so pallid that her head might have been dunked in a sack of flour.).

The big draw here, of course, is Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, and, contrary to expectations, he underplays the role. His Hatter may have a clownish orange aureole of hair and a pasty face ringed with raccoonish eye shadow but he’s first and foremost a gentleman. Even though I initially wished for a more hypercharged performance from Depp, I appreciated his delicacy and charm. He knows when to chew the scenery and when to go on a diet.

At times, Burton seems to be channeling “The Wizard of Oz” as much as Lewis Carroll, and the familiarity is more confusing than enchanting. Other times, especially at the end, when the film devolves into a generic action fantasy, it summons up “The Lord of the Rings.” I kept expecting Frodo to intervene. Not a good sign.

Burton originally shot “Alice in Wonderland” in 2-D and then converted it to 3-D. One might have thought that Burton, who is also a gifted artist, would go hog wild exploring the possibilities of 3-D rather than retrofitting his movie to cash in on the current craze. As with so much else in this movie, he’s pulling his punches. No knockouts here. No tkos, either. Grade: C+ (Rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar.)

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