To dispense with the obvious: Tim Burton’s new Disney movie is not Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece of dream illogic, Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, but more of a C. S. Lewis Carroll Alice in Narnia with your horror host Johnny Depp. In Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, characters, tropes, and actual verses of Alice’s Adventures … and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass, are folded into an action-fantasy in which the 19-year-old Alice (in her second plunge down the rabbit hole) must prove her mettle by rising up on the frabjous day and slaying the Jabberwock (“Callooh! Callay!”), thereby saving “Underland” (allegedly the subterranean kingdom’s real name) from the nasty Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). The Reverend Charles Dodgson’s deliciously maddening satire of English manners and pedantry is now fodder for noisy chases, thwacking battles with CGI beasties, and a smug framing story in which Alice (Mia Wasikowska) must decide at a garden party before sundry members of the aristocracy whether to accept an offer of marriage from a profoundly unattractive prig or follow in the madcap footsteps of her late father.
If you can get past the craven concessions to formula, though, it’s rather underful—I mean, wonderful. Taking his cues from John Tenniel’s famous illustrations, Burton indulges his delight in disproportion. Nothing and no one in Underland quite fits, least of all our heroine, who becomes very small, then very big, then teensy enough to hide inside the Mad Hatter’s hat, then vastly out of scale with the court of the Red Queen, where she’s greeted as a visiting giantess. (Alice wears, variously, a dress, a dress fashioned from her underwear, some curtains, and finally a suit of snazzy, silvery Joan of Arc body armor for riding into battle on the frumious Bandersnatch.)
After standing in long lines at MoMA for fleeting glimpses of his adolescent doodles, I swore not to succumb to mindless Burton worship. But it’s hard to be undazzled by the way he mingles the circus and the sepulchre, the Magic Kingdom and the mausoleum: For Timmy Scissorhands, there is no true beauty without a touch (or a ton) of decay. He also lives to turn actors into funhouse-mirror versions of themselves. As the homicidally petulant Red Queen (who is more like the first book’s Queen of Hearts), Burton ghoul-friend Bonham Carter sports a double-size head atop a normal-size body, suggesting an enormous overdressed infant. The Queen’s chief henchman, the Knave of Hearts, is Crispin Glover’s noggin on a spindly, elongated frame—very what’s-wrong-with-this-picture and yet, given Glover’s spidery presence, very right. The immense, bald, neckless blobs with the head(s) of actor Matt Lucas are a Tweedledee and Tweedledum dwarfed only by the more immense mushrooms springing up all over the moldy Underland landscape. It’s disappointing when Anne Hathaway’s White Queen turns out to have normal proportions, though her pallor is unearthly and her red lips rimmed in black. As Melville suggested, whiteness might be the true color of death.
Depp reportedly decided that the mercury poisoning that made many nineteenth-century hatters so mad would be manifest in his eyes (green) and hair (Bozo orange), and that his skin tone and accent would shift according to the character’s mood. (“I always saw the Hatter as kind of tragic … ”) Does it all come together? Not entirely, but Depp brings an infectious summer-stock zest to everything he does: I picture him digging through trunks of old costumes and trying on this torn vest and that dusty cravat and sitting in front of his dressing-room mirror playing with makeup and bulging his eyes and sticking out his tongue … The CGI might have cramped his invention, though. I wonder if Burton thinks back fondly on the days when Michael Keaton could rage around the set for hours coming up with his Beetlejuice riffs without worrying about Players to Be Computer-Generated Later. The fully CG-ed characters (the Cheshire Cat, the White Rabbit, etc.) are not particularly memorable (even with the voices of Alan Rickman, Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, and other high-priced Brits), which suggests that Burton, for all his graphic genius, responds most fully to flesh-and-blood performers.
Alice in Wonderland is (in many theaters) in 3-D, but Burton doesn’t seem the least bit interested in Avatar-like immersion. The faker the better. The topiary and hedges create orderly layers of space, and the foreground figures often resemble cardboard cutouts—which strikes me as exactly how it should be, given the characters’ playing-cards origins. The meeting of Red and White Queens on a great chessboard battlefield is gorgeous—and the clash that follows is choreographed and designed with such wit and elegance that it puts to shame the longer, more elaborate battles in other recent fantasy films (among them—dare I say?—The Lord of the Rings trilogy). Bonham Carter’s bratty insouciance will impress you more if you haven’t seen its obvious antecedent, Miranda Richardson’s peerless Elizabeth I in Blackadder II (“Who’s Queen?”), but it’s still screamingly funny. And Burton made the right call in casting Mia Wasikowska instead of a swan-necked Keira Knightley type. The part of Alice is compromised by what showbiz people would call her new “character arc,” but Wasikowska, as she proved on the HBO show In Treatment, can seem at one moment overdefended and the next poetically transparent. Burton, bless him, knows you can’t CG a soul.