Film Review: Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton's muddled take on the classic Lewis Carroll tale has moments of lucidity but mostly seems as confused as its titular heroine.

Perhaps the most surprising thing about Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland is that it has taken him almost 30 years to be able to make it. After all, if ever a match-up between filmmaker and source material seemed like a slam-dunk, it's the pairing of the creator of Edward Scissorhands with the classic novel that introduced the White Rabbit and the Cheshire Cat into popular culture.

The good news is that the long wait has given Burton the opportunity to establish his commercial bona fides to the point where the folks at Walt Disney willingly gave him a rumored $250 million—his largest budget to date—to create his version of Wonderland on the big screen. Even more promisingly, his film isn't yet another retelling of Lewis Carroll's oft-adapted story, but rather an original sequel, picking up several years after the events chronicled in both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass with a now-grown Alice (played by Mia Wasikowska) returning to the world she doesn't remember visiting as a child. This approach gives Burton free rein to use all of the familiar faces that populate the land at the bottom of the rabbit hole, without having to tread the same narrative path that other films—including Disney's own 1951 animated version—have followed before.

The downside of allowing Burton to construct his own story within Carroll's world is that the director's storytelling skills haven't been particularly reliable of late. When he's at the top of his game, Burton is able to marry his surrealistic visual sensibility with a plot powered by a strong emotional through-line. In the case of Alice in Wonderland, he and screenwriter Linda Woolverton begin with a clear narrative arc in mind, but somewhere along the way they lose track of what the movie is fundamentally about.

At its core, Burton's take on the material recasts Carroll's odd little children's story as a tale of female empowerment. His Alice stands on the precipice of adulthood, torn between becoming the woman 19th-century society expects her to be—namely a dutiful wife and mother—and the woman she wants to be, a free-spirited dreamer. It's no accident that her trip back to Wonderland occurs on the same day that she's expected to agree to wed the sickly and socially awkward son of a wealthy family. Fleeing from her intended right after he pops the question, Alice once again follows the White Rabbit down his rabbit hole and emerges in a land filled with talking caterpillars, swashbuckling mice and a pair of bulbous twin boys, all of whom recognize her even though she doesn't recall meeting them before.

Soon after arriving, Alice learns that her mission, if she chooses to accept it, is to race to the aid of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), whose power has been usurped by her sister the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). In just a few days, the Red Queen will dispatch the deadly Jabberwocky to destroy her sibling once and for all and it is foretold that Alice will stand and fight the monster as the White Queen's champion. But first she has to find the only sword that can slay the Jabberwocky, which, inconveniently enough, is hidden somewhere in the Red Queen's castle.

Initially it seems as if Burton and Woolverton intend for the war between Wonderland's royal siblings to represent Alice's own divide within herself. Where Carter's jealous Red Queen demands obedience and conformity, Hathaway's White Queen encourages Alice to make her own choices (while still strongly suggesting that she battle the Jabberwocky on her behalf, of course). But the film never fleshes out this idea, instead getting bogged down in bloodless action sequences that would seem more at home in a Chronicles of Narnia movie. The proceedings are further muddied by Burton's decision to give Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter a more sizeable role as a confidant and quasi-father figure to Alice, who still mourns the untimely death of her own dad. While this does grant more screen time to the director's favorite leading man (and the movie's sole A-list star), Depp's scenes only serve to grind the film's already plodding pace to a full stop.

Even when Burton can't connect the narrative dots in his movies, you can generally count on his visual imagination to hold your attention. Unfortunately, his conception of Wonderland is largely a disappointment, too derivative of his past work (the gnarled trees could have been shipped directly from the Sleepy Hollow set) and nowhere near as fanciful and strange as the land described in Carroll's novels or depicted in past film adaptations. Burton's bland use of 3D does little to enhance the experience as well; compared to Avatar's eye-popping vistas and Coraline's beautifully layered sets, Alice in Wonderland is drab and dull, two words rarely used to describe a Tim Burton movie.

At least Burton can take credit for finding one of the best screen Alices to date. An Australian actress whose most significant prior credit was as a regular on the acclaimed HBO series "In Treatment," Wasikowksa carries the movie as if it were her umpteenth star turn. In her poised, focused performance, you can see glimpses of the movie that Burton perhaps set out to make, one about a young woman who finds the courage to defy convention and follow her dreams wherever they might lead. Too bad that potent storyline gets lost amidst all the banal wonders of his Wonderland.