Sure, Tim Burton directed this new loose adaptation of the Lewis Carroll novels “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking-Glass,” but you know exactly what to expect with him: Gothic art direction and loony characters.
What makes a Tim Burton movie something more than just a visual delight is its screenplay.
This one was written by Linda Woolverton, who co-wrote the screenplays for acclaimed Disney movies such as “The Lion King” and “Beauty and the Beast,” so it wasn’t too much of a surprise to find her name on the credits for another Disney film.
What was surprising was how aimless the movie became in its middle section–once Alice visits the trippy surreality of Underland for the second time in 12 years.
Come to think of it, though, aimless discovery is supposed to be part of the fun. What’s really missing from “Alice in Wonderland” (shown in 3D in theaters that can support it) is a witty, vibrant voice for its many hallucinatory residents.
Woolverton actually gives the film a solid foundation before things get weird, and Burton does his usual role-reversal thing to great effect. Like Edward Scissorhands, Alice is an outcast who turns out to be the most sane one of the bunch. She looks back on her late father (who had “six impossible thoughts before breakfast”) as a visionary rather than a freak, and she’s not too keen to marry merely because Victorian social norms require it.
When the pressure gets too much, she simply says “I need a moment,” and disappears down the rabbit hole.
Ironically, that’s when the story starts to lose its footing. Mia Wasikowska plays Alice with the perfect sense of balance between bewilderment and calm, but the she keeps insisting that Underland and its inhabitants are her dream. Her structureless wandering is supposed to form a bond between her and The Mad Hatter (a mulit-accented, multi-colored Johnny Depp), but we only know that because thee characters tell us. There’s not a lot of chemistry or real time for that relationship to develop.
Helena Bonham Carter (the big-headed Red Queen–literally) has some of the best one-liners in the film, but it feels like even she could have used a couple more. The visual splendor is more than enough to feast your eyes on, so it’s too bad that the dialogue in the film couldn’t live up to its look.
“Alice in Wonderland” was not shot using stereoscopic cameras, but instead retro-fitted to be 3D later, and it shows only in the fact that there are no gimmicky jump-out moments. The 3D actually enhances the depth of the design and the otherworldliness of Alice’s surroundings, but doesn’t stand out as particularly inventive.
For a movie with as many dark themes, severed fingers, and severed heads, “Alice in Wonderland” is surprisingly a PG-rated movie. Maybe Woolverton and Burton were able to sneak the weirdness by the ratings board by making the story so obviously one of girl empowerment.
By the end of the film, this theme comes back into focus more directly and the movie is back on solid, if obvious, ground. It is too bad that the script couldn’t quite live up to the visual marvel.