Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland is many things: a journey through a surreal world full of memorable characters, a brilliantly playful introduction to the worlds of logic and mathematics and, with all its hookahs, mushrooms and body-and-mind-expanding potions, a kindred spirit of American counterculture since at least the heyday of Jefferson Airplane. One thing Alice has never been, though, is a straightforward narrative.
Maybe that’s why the pairing of Alice and director Tim Burton seemed like a match made in candy-goth heaven. Burton has always been a master esthetician, crafting worlds just twisted enough to pass as ghoulish, but not enough to truly frighten the kiddies. Who better to transfer Carroll’s world of oddballs, outcasts and barking-mad tea partiers to the big screen?
Oddly, Hollywood’s token iconoclast transforms Alice’s story into something far more typical. In his hands, Wonderland becomes another Narnia or Middle Earth, a land besieged by a flighty tyrant and in desperate need of a champion. The years between Alice’s first visit to Wonderland and her teenaged return haven’t been kind to the underground realm. The Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter) has “off-with-his-headed” her meek husband, and without the king to balance her murderous impulses, Wonderland has become a wasteland. Its remaining inhabitants live in constant fear of the Bandersnatch, Jubjub bird and, above all, the vicious Jabberwock, which the Queen has apparently borrowed from Carroll’s classic nonsense poem.
Enter (or, rather, re-enter) Alice (newcomer Mia Wasikowska), now a teen convinced that Wonderland is little more than a recurring nightmare, albeit an especially vivid one. She’s quickly reunited with familiar faces, most of them voiced by perfectly cast ringers from British film and television: the Cheshire Cat (a purring Stephen Fry), the plucky Dormouse (EastEnders’ Barbara Windsor) and pontificating caterpillar Absalom (an excessively droll Alan Rickman) dominate the screen whenever they appear. Though he’s the focus of much of the film’s advertising and a significant presence in the film, Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter is less compelling. He’s not so much a character as an aggregation of makeup and bizarre, lisping line readings. Though Depp hints at some unspoken depths in the character’s oversized eyes, the script never lets him dig in.
There’s no question that Burton has created the most visually sumptuous adaptation of Alice that’s ever graced theatres. As far as surfaces go, from the fairy-tale castles to the sprawling landscapes to the spot-on grotesqueness of the character design, he’s absolutely nailed it. But in trading the wordplay and whimsy of Carroll’s stories for an epic adventure with the requisite climactic battle, he’s missed much of what made Alice so appealing in the first place. It’s appropriate that he renames the fantasy world Underland, attributing the more popular sobriquet up to a young Alice’s misunderstanding: For all its visual flair, there’s a surprising dearth of wonder here.