As witnessed throughout much of his filmography, Tim Burton has the uncanny ability to reach astonishingly dark moods while still maintaining a jovial atmosphere worthy of his riotous imagination. Occasionally, the shadows get the best of him. Much like "Batman Returns" and "Mars Attacks," "Alice in Wonderland" is a Burton vehicle with four flat tires, attempting to pull off a tricky juggling act of whimsy and violence, using author Lewis Carroll's legendary novel as a playground for the blandest of fantasy visions. It's a drab feature film molded with garish CGI and acted as if there wasn't a director on set at all. It's far from deplorable, but it does represent the filmmaker at his most persistently ineffective.
At the moment of a marriage proposal from a man of unpleasant gastrointestinal potential, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) decides to chase after the White Rabbit, falling back into Underland, a world she once visited in her youth. Now ruled with a beheading fury by the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), Underland is falling apart, waiting for Alice to return and fulfill a prophecy that has the dainty girl slaying the monstrous Jabberwocky. Stunned by her surroundings, Alice is helped along by pal Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who pushes the heroine to rescue the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and restore balance to the land. With the villainous Stayne (Crispin Glover) on the hunt, Alice needs all the Underland help she can find, including the mischievous Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) and the stoic Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman).
The title reads "Alice in Wonderland," but a more accurate reflection of content would be "Alice Has Already Been to Wonderland." This "Alice" adventure is conceived as more of a sequel, treading where "Return to Oz" and "Hook" already splashed up a storm. It's an effort to be clever, to restore an element of surprise to a tale that's been reworked a hundred different ways. Criminally, screenwriter Linda Woolverton (Disney's "Beauty and the Beast") allows the potential of a majestic "Alice" reawakening to slip through her fingers, instead staging a big-budget retread of events from the initial Underland visit under the guise of Alice's amnesia (even the talking animals are surprised to see their savior repeating herself). Granted, the new version shows a surprising amount of teeth at times to keep up with Carroll, but the eat me/drink me déjà vu holds no charm or purpose other than to show off a flashy round of unconvincing greenscreen effects (exaggerated poorly in the film's stale 3-D presentation).
While handling a literary classic with loving hands, Burton slips plenty of his affected madness into "Alice in Wonderland," channeling most of his vision into the Underland flora and the design of the characters, who all receive extravagantly bulbous, angular make-up and CG embellishment. Burton's eye for odd is affectionate, but retains a cold touch; it's almost a parody of a Tim Burton film at times, especially in the execution of the Red Queen, who's depicted as a massive screeching head on top of a wisp of a woman. "Alice in Wonderland" is begging to be inhaled as a fantasia of creatures and fantasylands, but the lack of practical craftsmanship leaves the film unbearably plastic and soulless, a fact underlined by the humorless, dour script, which seems to view joy as the enemy.
The film's violent too, with three instances of ocular trauma and, expectedly, a fixation on severed heads. Perhaps this would've pleased Carroll, but in a Tim Burton film, the aggression feels about as welcome as tax audit. Call it "Batman Returnsitis," where the combless maestro wants to indulge his itch for nightmarish imagery while still hoping to delight family audiences. The script already deals with sorrowful themes of madness and dreamscape interpretation, which makes the blunt instances of disfigurement stand out even further.
The actors are lost in the artificial haze with "Alice in Wonderland," trying to mold characterizations in the midst of a full-throated CG assault. Wasikowska looks the part, but she's merely blonde wallpaper, popping in and out of the story only when needed. Obviously Depp has the showier role as the Mad Hatter, and the actor does manage to shake up the screen with a wild orange appearance and a wavering accent (Scottish and English) to play up the starry-eyed duality of the character. He's grandstanding with Burton's approval, who also prods real-life partner Carter to belch regally as the bellowing queen. Better is Hathaway as the flighty White Queen, and Fry is perfectly cast as the wily Cheshire Cat. There's not a soul in the ensemble that's able to break the dreary spell suffocating the film, though I do give credit to Depp for trying, busting out a last-minute hip-hop dance routine as a way to provide Alice with her pre-digested girl power means of rebellion. Now there's an inappropriate scene if there ever was one.
"Alice in Wonderland" doesn't accomplish much during its time onscreen, concluding with a chess board rumble of surprisingly little consequence. The film's bleak and exhausted, which doesn't encourage the most jubilant of Underland moods. Attempting to burrow into the core of Carroll's psychosis, Burton wildly overplays his hand, searching for a way to engage younger audiences with an array of anthropomorphic animals and iconic plotting and still plunder potent psychological depths. Burton's turned "Alice in Wonderland" into a silver screen suicide note, once again mistaking an extended stay in hostility as a directorial statement of integrity.