If you’re expecting a reiteration of your favorite psychedelic Victorian children’s novel by Lewis Carroll, you will be disappointed. The new Alice in Wonderland, from director Tim Burton, takes place years after Alice’s original journey. With Alice all grown up and on the verge of becoming betrothed to a nose-honking twerp, Burton immediately establishes that our journey down the rabbit hole will not be a wholly familiar one.
First we find out that little pinafored Alice had it wrong: it’s called “Underland” not “Wonderland.” Then Burton scraps the child-like wonder of young Alice for a plucky, “I-make-my-own-path” heroine. Alice starts the film as the curious girl we are familiar with, and ends as a beast-slaying crusader.
The discrepancies don’t end there. Unlike Carroll’s linear (albeit peculiar) narrative, Burton’s film is diffuse, and spends too much time delighting in the representation of old favorites like the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and the Queen of Hearts (Helena Bonham Carter) to really pay attention to this new story. The amorphous plot is loosely based on a stale quest narrative: According to an ancient scroll, it is foretold that Alice will slay the menacing Jabberwocky and free Underland from the iron-fisted rule of the Queen of Hearts. So Alice does. And when she’s through, she clicks her heels three times and leaves Narnia through the wardrobe. Or she pulls the sword from the stone? No matter.
Danny Elfman’s score steers the story away from its delightfully quirky roots toward something more prosaic, more emotional — in a word, overwrought. The film was adapted for 3-D and the graphics are technically masterful and entertaining without being too gimmicky. But of course, if Wonderland, er, Underland were anything short of visually stunning the film would have been an automatic flop. The costumes are also a resounding success. Each time Alice changes from big to small, she finds herself in a new dress. The elaborate hats crafted by the Mad Hatter are at least one attempt to harness the charming absurdity of Carroll’s Alice.
Speaking of which, Johnny Depp truly embodies the Mad Hatter in his well-established niche as the eccentric comic relief. Helena Bonham Carter is a hilarious Queen of Hearts and her giant head (courtesy of excellent special effects) and fragile ego make for a few good laughs. The creepy Knave of Hearts goes to Crispin Glover, who accepts the role with relish. Stephen Fry voices the Cheshire Cat, Alan Rickman does the caterpillar, “Little Britain” comedian Matt Lucas provides the voices for Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and Michael Sheen is the famously tardy rabbit. A combination all-star cast and CGI delivers; the plot does not.