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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.

The first half of The Yellow Handkerchief is the half-movie of the year, and the rest isn’t bad—just more sentimental, more ordinary. The director, Udayan Prasad, has a gift for translating his characters’ thoughts and feelings into point-of-view shots. Watch how beautifully he sustains the emotional line in the first ten minutes, when the aging, largely silent Brett (William Hurt) emerges from a Mississippi Delta prison after six years and makes his way to the center of town. In a small café and gift shop, Brett savors his first beer, taking in everything—including the gawky motormouth Gordy (Eddie Redmayne), who’s trying to strike up conversations with strangers, and the high-strung teenager Martine (Kristen Stewart), who’s getting blown off by the guy she slept with the night before. These three lonely souls somehow end up in Gordy’s old convertible: They cross the river by ferry in a storm and head for post-Katrina New Orleans. Horny Gordy is smitten with Martine, whose eyes are locked on the tight-lipped older man. Brett doesn’t often gaze back. He’s haunted by visions—at first only fleeting images—of a New Orleans woman (a luminous Maria Bello) who might have something to do with why he went to prison.

In interviews, Hurt often seems as if he’s working too hard to come off as a big brain. I wonder if he seized on the role of Brett for the chance to play a man who’s wide open yet too scared to articulate what he feels. The performance is exquisite. Hurt’s hair has receded and with it, I think, some of his actor’s vanity. Brett would like to be less present than he is, to summon a protective fog, but the kids keep trying to draw him out. Stewart is younger and less formed than in her Twilight films. Her character doesn’t develop enough (she turns into a cheerleader for Brett), but she and Redmayne have a touchingly awkward rapport. You’d never know this terrific young actor is a Brit. Gordy claims to be Native American but sounds like he’s from nowhere. What wins your heart is how hard he’s working to forge an identity.

The Yellow Handkerchief’s three road warriors are essentially homeless, and Prayad, working with the great cinematographer Chris Menges, sets them down in a landscape of rusty garages and corroded shacks and storm-lashed boats. The script by Erin Dignam doesn’t dwell on Katrina, but almost every shot suggests a world that might not be there tomorrow. But by the time the three drive over the bridge into New Orleans, the film has gone soft. Some movies are better when characters’ mysterious backstories stay mysterious. But the spell of this one’s first half carries you far, far downriver.

Calculated to enrage and pulling it off like gangbusters, Don Argott’s documentary The Art of the Steal pits the legacy of the late Albert C. Barnes’s Barnes Foundation (which boasts arguably the world’s finest collection of French Impressionist and Post-Impressionist art) against the social-climbing, philistine, downright Nixonian machinations of Philadelphia’s wealthiest—who gamed the system and pried the collection loose in defiance of Barnes’s legal will. (The film’s villains include the Pew Charitable Trusts, Walter Annenberg, foundation director Bernard C. Watson, and a slew of Philadelphian pols who regard the collection as a cash cow and tourist magnet.) Beyond the outrageous story of the Barnes, The Art of the Steal makes the depressing case that not-for-profit culture attracts a distinct species of greedhead and charlatan, the kind that likes to bask in the radiance in artists’ reflected glory.

Director Udayan Prasad set The Yellow Handkerchief in and around a New Orleans still reeling from Hurricane Katrina. The city is, in some ways, a character in itself—and arguably as famous as one of the movie’s human stars: Kristen Stewart. Prasad cast her as Martine based on the recommendation of Jodie Foster, who played her mother in 2002’s Panic Room. It was two years before she became the planet’s most famous vampire lover in the Twilight movies. Having seen those films, Handkerchief producer Arthur Cohn had said, “With all respect to Twilight, I think Martine was infinitely harder to pull off.”

Alice in Wonderland
Walt Disney Pictures.

The Yellow Handkerchief
Samuel Goldwyn Films.

The Art of the Steal
Sundance Selects.

E-mail: filmcritic@newyorkmag.com.

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