Friday, March 5, 2010

Burton's "Wonderland" has visual pizzazz but little soul

Alice in Wonderland (2010)
108 min., rated PG.

Mad-hatter fantasist Tim Burton brings his reliably dark, trippy oddness to "Alice in Wonderland," a sequel of sorts and revisionist take on Lewis Carroll's novels, "Alice in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking Glass." But this is an often joyless and turgid Wonderland. In fact, it's actually called “Underland.” 

Relative newcomer Mia Wasikowska, resembling a young Claire Danes and Gwyneth Paltrow, hits all the right notes as Alice, a rather stern and strong-willed 19-year-old Victorian girl about to enter an arranged marriage. She runs away and before you can say “Off with her head!” falls down the rabbit hole. (FYI, she's visiting the place for the second time, even though she doesn't remember it and keeps calling it a dream, and there's debate in this fantasy world whether or not she's the “real” Alice.) And that's where things get “curiouser and curiouser” for Alice, encountering helpful creatures and becoming the hero who can finally end the tyrannical Red Queen's reign and hand it over to her sister, the White Queen (an ethereal Anne Hathaway). Alice is also the only one who can slay the Jabberwocky, the Red Queen's dragon-like monster.

Burton is a genius when it comes to creating colorful, fantastically vivid worlds and a menagerie of kooky characters. Here, we have a cute bunch: the White Rabbit in a waistcoat, a door mouse, a hookah-smoking caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, and Tweedledee and Tweedledum, all of them voiced by an expert British cast. Burton's eccentric muse Johnny Depp—their sixth collaboration together—is enjoyably nutty as the carrot-topped, wonky-eyed Mad Hatter with a speech impediment and a secret two-step dance move. It's not Depp's most inspired performance, mostly a Johnny one-note mash-up of Jack Sparrow and Willy Wonka sameness. But Burton's partner, Helena Bonham Carter, whose head is swollen to bulbous size thanks to computer magic, is a wickedly hilarious riot as the Red Queen. Besides screaming “Off with her head!” Carter somehow makes her sympathetic as well. 

"Alice in Wonderland" boasts an eyeful of gorgeous art direction and set design, and an earful of whimsy; bottom line: this is a visual triumph. So why isn't it a better movie? It's curiously hollow, missing the magic and wonder by suffocating the screen with fakey CG window dressing and expensive 3-D gimmickry. What ever happened to practical sets? The timeless story makes nods to its source material and “The Wizard of Oz” but undergoes some underwhelming changes that also might put off purists, all the way to the Narnia-esque battle sequence with Alice in Joan of Arc's armor fighting the Jabberwocky. And what's with the anachronistic end-credit song by Avril Lavigne? 

Grade: C +

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