'Alice In Wonderland': Light Fantastic, By Kurt Loder

Tim Burton's long-awaited epic is strangely underwhelming.

Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" may be a victim of our extravagant expectations. The dark master of cinematic visualization seems an exciting choice to take a new pass at Lewis Carroll's Victorian fantasy classic (and its sequel, "Through the Looking-Glass"). But while Burton's 3D "Alice" has been very expensively produced, and its seamless blend of live action and CGI invention is predictably impressive, the picture is oddly flat — a disjointed pageant of virtuoso effects. It's a triumph of design that falls short of wonderment.

This is only the second feature Burton has directed for the Disney studios since he began his career there as an animator 30 years ago. His first Disney movie, the 1994 "Ed Wood," was pure Timbo. "Alice," however, seems constrained by its corporate connection — it's not as psychologically warped as Burton fans might expect.

The script, by Disney vet Linda Woolverton ("The Lion King"), is a gloss on the Carroll books. Here, Alice (scrappily played by Mia Wasikowska), is 20 years old and chafing under parental pressure for an arranged engagement to an upper-class twit. Fleeing his proposal, she takes off in pursuit of a white rabbit (Michael Sheen), who leads her down his rabbit hole and on into her familiar adventures.

Alice has visited Wonderland (or Underland, as it's called here) before, as a little girl. Now she marvels anew at the curious characters on hand: the leering Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), the egg-shaped Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both played by Matt Lucas), the snooty blue caterpillar (expressing himself in a syrupy drawl that could only belong to Alan Rickman), and of course the Mad Hatter (a gap-toothed Johnny Depp in orange fright hair and dilapidated top hat).

Madder yet is the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, with heart-shaped lips on a great, gourd-like head), who seethes with ill will toward her sister, the beautiful White Queen (Anne Hathaway in platinum wig and unfortunate beet-red lipstick). In league with her sinister consort, the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover, or at least his well-known noggin), the Red Queen plots to have it out with her hated sibling, with the aid of the fearsome Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee) — a fire-breathing dragon virtually indistinguishable from similar rampant creatures in any number of other contemporary fantasy films. We know in our bones that Alice will have to confront this evil beast; and since we're told early on that a book called the Oraculum has prophesied its defeat at her hands (a plot decision that somewhat lowers the eagerness of our anticipation), I don't think it's giving anything away to reveal that she does, in a long, laborious and rather run-of-the-mill battle at the end.

Burton has given us the first post-apocalyptic Wonderland. Apart from the White Queen's gleaming marble castle, this fantastical world is a burned-out ruin — very Burtonesque, but also rather glum. And the decision to convert the picture into 3D in post-production might almost have been an afterthought: the extra dimension does very little to enhance the film's visual impact, and the necessary loss of light in viewing it through dark glasses makes you wonder how much more effective the movie might be in plain old 2D. The actors are unusually good, and the picture's two name-brand stars give whole-hearted performances; but one also wonders if it isn't time for Depp, here appearing in his seventh Burton film, and Carter, in her sixth, to be furloughed for a bit so the director can bring in some fresh faces to work with. He might also consider climbing out of the rabbit hole and leaving this sort of pre-conceived wonderland behind. All the wonders that any movie might need are already there in his head.

Don't miss Kurt Loder's review of "Brooklyn's Finest," also new in theaters this week.

Check out everything we've got on "Alice in Wonderland."

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