Alice in Wonderland
Directed by Tim Burton
We enter, with a not-in-Kansas-anymore flourish, into a computer-animated 3-D production design-scape in which a young earthling must learn the rules of the rules of the game, duck animal rampages and master beasts with protruding, saliva-soaked incisors, and become the great hope of the oppressed natives. If this summary of Tim Burton's take on the original strange little girl seems pointedly to function equally well as a summary of Avatar, the point is not that Alice in Wonderland is derivative, but that this fairytale template has thus far proven a useful way for filmmakers to organize the wonder they feel at their new technological toys-and, perhaps, narrative prize to keep their eyes on, while they're indulging their tendencies for hyperimaginative filigree work in every corner of the frame.
Which sense of wonder is sometimes contagious. Glossy school-binder-goth production design overwhelmed Burton's last few films; animation, here accomplished with greenscreens and CGI, just feels more natural at this point. Wonderland is all smeared-pastel skies, sweet-soft ripe-rotten flora, and opinionated fauna; and Burton can finally make his actors look as much like dolls as he wants. Chiefly his wife, Helena Bonham Carter, whose Red Queen is a hydrocephalic kewpie doll with a heart-shaped bow of lipstick and childishly weak "r"s. Over a subjugated Wonderland she rules; all of Lewis Carroll's cracked creations are enlisted in a disorganized resistance against her, led by the Mad Hatter-I say "led" because Johnny Depp, in white clown makeup and a carrot-top frizz, affects a William Wallace for the Hatter's occasional moments of lucidity. When, that is, he's not doing soft-shoe, baby-talking gibberish, or pulling faces in two-shots. The real actors have to ham it up to keep pace with the set, and the animated presences of rich-voiced character actors like Alan Rickman (the Blue Caterpillar), Stephen Fry (the Cheshire Cat) and Little Britain's Matt Lucas (Tweedledee and Tweedledum). Even Anne Hathaway, in deep purple lipstick and witch-white hair as the banished White Queen, does a giddily goofy goody-two-shoes, all off-balance fairy-queen poses like a tipsy Titania.
Nor can Burton keep from fiddling with the story: as with his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory adaptation, he hitches long-familiar characters to reductive backstories. Alice (Mia Wasikowska), postpubescent here, is a headstrong young Victorian, a daddy's girl whose deceased daddy is no longer around to encourage her to resist stilted high society and constraining corsets. Escaping a stage-managed garden-party marriage proposal, she falls down the rabbit hole into "Underland" (as it's called here), and begins a deliriously literal identity crisis. Potions and cakes make her too big and too small—never just right—while the various doormice and hares argue over whether she's "the right Alice" of recent memory, who will slay the H.R. Giger-ish Jabberwocky and free the Underlanders—just as soon as she figures out, as she says, who she's supposed to be. For opposite reasons, Burton too tries on many different hats: Wonderland's anarchic feel comes not from wordplay, like Carroll's metaphysical puns, but from the busy, garish 3-D grounds and from Burton's antic tonal swticheroos, from a black-murky moat filled with severed heads to deadpan whimsy (in a scene of the Red Queen trying on many different hats) to, finally, a girl-power finale complete, unfortunately, with end-credits belting from Avril Lavigne, who's done more than anyone save Tim Burton to make super-dark eye makeup acceptable for girls everywhere.
Opens March 5