Who’s In It: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway, Crispin Glover, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, Timothy Spall
The Basics: Having forgotten her trip to Wonderland as a child, 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is now a misfit teenager in Ye Olde Victorian England, where her parents’ high society friends keep pressuring her to stop asking silly questions all the time and start thinking about grown-up responsibilities. Running away in a panic from her surprise engagement party, Alice again finds herself falling down the rabbit hole to Wonderland, where she discovers her old friends living in terror under the iron rule of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). Faced with another destiny not of her own choosing, Alice must decide if she can be brave enough to save her pals from the evil queen by slaying the deadly dragon known as the Jabberwock.
What’s The Deal: The world of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, as filtered through the fantastically oddball brain of director Tim Burton, is just as visually striking as you’d think it would be; ironically, it’s the story that fails to excite the imagination. Combining references from both Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and the sequel Through the Looking Glass with an entirely new epic plot involving both civil war and grrl power, Burton’s film revisits Alice’s familiar exploits in service of its plot (the “Eat Me/Drink Me” room, the Mad Tea Party), moments that should delight fans of the books and the classic Disney animated film. But when it veers into new territory, transforming its indecisive Alice into Alice: Warrior Princess in the process, this Wonderland feels disappointingly empty and banal, far less full of whimsy and meaningful subtext than any film featuring a hookah-smoking caterpillar should be.
Where Burton Succeeds: Burton conjures a fantastical Wonderland culled straight from a child’s imagination, filled with colorful and grotesque imagery and seamlessly-integrated CGI creatures that gyre and gimble believably alongside their human counterparts. Using clever tricks, he transforms Helena Bonham Carter’s head into a noggin of gigantic proportions to make her Red Queen appear at once fearsome and silly, which also amusingly explains her obnoxious temperament. Crispin Glover, who logic tells us could not appear to be any creepier than in his natural state, is given unnaturally long limbs and a disjointed gait that give his Knave of Hearts an even more sinister look and feel. And if making Crispin Glover scarier than he already is isn’t some sort of achievement, I’m not sure what is.
Besides The Story, Also Watch Out For: The 3D presentation, which creates convincing depth at times but mostly just gives your poor eyeballs a headache-inducing workout. This is partly because the movie’s producers chose to film it in 2D and convert it afterwards, an unfortunate decision that results in 108 eye-crossing minutes of trying to focus on everything in the foreground and background of the film’s crowded fantasy land. After the astounding three-dimensional work on display in James Cameron’s Avatar, this brand of crappy, tacked-on 3D is nothing more than a nuisance.
A Note On Johnny Depp: Mention must be made of Johnny Depp’s rainbow-colored Mad Hatter, a wild-eyed, orange-haired, existential lunatic with a slight brogue who veers perilously close to Depp’s disastrous Willy Wonka in the 2005 Burton film Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. In comparison with Wonka, The Hatter is thankfully much less creepy (and even endearing in his daffiness), although there is some suggestion of a romantic curiosity between him and Alice that feels strangely inappropriate. Then again, what woman couldn’t resist Johnny Depp, even underneath all those layers of pancake makeup and extreme mental imbalance?