Alice in Wonderland (PG)
Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16, Cinemark 16 IMAX, Hollywood Interquest, Tinseltown
Let history handle the judging of director Tim Burton's Disney take on Lewis Carroll's fantasy classics against other film-adaptation attempts, like the first, from 1903; or the one with Gary Cooper, W.C. Fields and Cary Grant from 1933; or Disney's own animated try in 1951. A more pressing question is whether Burton's film satisfies on its own terms.
Which brings to mind a certain scene. Pink flamingo used as golf club, politely, to hedgehog used as golf ball: "So sorry."
It's nice to meet the crafty young actress Mia Wasikowska as a clever, independent-minded teenager enjoying the adventure of becoming a woman. Less nice that the adventure involves slipping out of her stuffy dress, donning Joan of Arc armor, beheading a dragon, and drinking its blood. And downright dispiriting to see Burton, the wayward Disney employee, dragged back into the fold by the platitudinous force of Lion King and Beauty and the Beast scribe Linda Woolverton, here a dutiful company woman going through the motions of dramatizing feminist self-empowerment.
Indeed, before getting home to tell all those corseted, pop-up-book aristocrats what to do with their arranged marriage and westward sail (on the winds of an Avril Lavigne song), this Alice first must indulge a formulaic foreordained quest to tame the Bandersnatch, slay the Jabberwock and save the computer-generated day in "Underland."
Right. But what of Burton the visualist, so encouragingly keen on illustrator John Tenniel's essential contributions to Carroll's books?
"If you go back to Tenniel," Burton said in one interview, "so much of his work is what stays in your mind about Alice and about Wonderland. Alice and the characters have been done so many times and in so many ways, but Tenniel's art really lasts there in your memory."
Well, as the writer Neal Pollack observed on Twitter during the last blitz of promo posters, "It seems that Tim Burton has turned Alice in Wonderland into a story about a 3D gay clown."
That would be Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter, the Bozo-haired, chartreuse-eyed oddity seen grinning in the poster but just as often fretting in the movie. (Mad? "All the best people are," Alice tells him, reiterating some encouraging words imparted by her father during a hasty prologue.) There had been hope that Burton's taste for casting inherently gothic, somber beauties such as Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, the director's main squeeze, would carry the day. And while at times all the CG clutter nearly does Depp in, Burton also has harnessed its unlifelike absurdity to bring out the best of Bonham Carter's tendency toward weirdly proportioned performances; hence a shrill, huffy Red Queen with a head at least two sizes too big for her body.
Still, it's a mystery how these things work, or don't. In the case of the Red Queen's henchfreak, Crispin Glover's Knave of Hearts, the actor's own weirdness and the movie's seem to render each other completely inert. The White Queen, Red's rival sister, is a fey, pallid Anne Hathaway, unencumbered by computer effects apparently so she may flounder in the community-theater mode of "I don't really understand my motivation but the director said to do this."
But maybe this is a victory for Burton after all. At least there's a hookah-puffing caterpillar played by Alan Rickman. Who else can make a film about which you'd say that?