Burton's 'Alice in Wonderland' Trips Down the Rabbit Hole

Disney Enterprises, Inc./Courtesy

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Correction Appended

Marred by superfluous 3-D and middling exposition, Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" tumbles into the abyss of mediocrity and barely recovers. That this problem besets the latest work by one of cinema's great stylists is unfortunate but perhaps expected. In the shadow of corporate Disney and its efforts to capitalize on technology and consumer demand, the film never rises above the sum of its parts. As the umpteenth screen rendition of Lewis Carroll's 1865 "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland," Burton's version is more spectacle-laden than spectacular, a work of sumptuous beauty and little soul to match.

Burton's decision to adapt one of the least conventional works in English literature comes as no surprise from a director whose works have constantly defied the establishment. Here, his vision is grounded in the perplexities of childhood and maturation. The film begins with a flashback to the past, in which young Alice Kingsley recounts a dream to her loving father. 13 years pass and we are introduced to Burton's Alice, played by the glowing Mia Wasikowska. En route to an arranged marriage, she relays her disdain for societal norms to her mother, her words dripping with hints of feminist resistance against Victorian-era repression.

The real-world sluggishness proves fleeting. Burton wastes no time in sending Alice on her way down the rabbit hole. Most of the characters seem to recall her last visit, save for Alice herself. The White Rabbit excitedly reassures the Dormouse that Alice has returned, Tweedledum and Tweedledee bicker over identities and the Blue Caterpillar waxes philosophical over hookah. To Burton's credit, his Wonderland-here referred to as "Underland"-unfolds into a superbly mercurial world, its vibrant palette often transforming into lugubrious gloom at a moment's notice.

As the plot evolves, Alice's homecoming unravels into a woefully derivative saga of territorial conflict and ragtag fellowship. Helena Bonham Carter's bitchy, big-headed Red Queen has the actress treading similar waters, while her sibling rivalry with Anne Hathaway's White Queen feels similarly flat. By contrast, Johnny Depp handles the Mad Hatter with the zany swank that we've come to expect from him. It's a refreshing departure from Linda Woolverton's programmatic script, which mistakenly inserts coherence into a narrative that requires none of it.

In terms of cinematic visuals, there are cliches that work and others that don't; the 3-D in "Alice in Wonderland" is firmly entrenched in the latter category. Contrary to "Avatar," whose Pandora was conceived specifically for virtual immersion, Burton's attempt to lend an extra dimension to his film remains nothing more than a nuisance. Victims include the Cheshire Cat and the Jabberwocky, iconic figures by any measure, whose moments instead feel tacky and uninspired. Collectively, the film's 3-D element grows into a glaring flaw that not even a gifted wizard like Burton can hope to mend.

Curiouser and curiouser. From idiosyncratic flourishes to marginalized souls, the Burtonian spirit of "Alice in Wonderland" feels at least partially intact; it's the glaring lack of heart that makes this his weakest offering since "Planet of the Apes." In a third act that emulates far more than it enervates, Alice effectively breaks from the shackles of denial, slaying the dragon, defeating the queen and restoring harmony to Underland. By contrast, Burton's "Alice," a film of unrealized promise, remains entrenched in the proverbial rabbit hole, never to emerge again.

Correction: Monday, March 8, 2010
An earlier version of this article stated that 12 years had passed between the flashback and Alice's re-entry into Wonderland. In fact, 13 years had passed.

The Daily Californian regrets the error.

David Liu is the lead film critic. Contact him at [email protected]

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