Alice in Wonderland opens Friday throughout the Triangle
There is a lot about Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland that's curiouser and curiouser, but just not much "muchness." It is a phantasmagorical fever dream that is both absorbing and banal, a looking glass that reflects Narnia, Middle-earth and assorted other child-escapist imaginaria in addition to its source text.
The seemingly sensible argument that Lewis Carroll's 1865 novella Alice's Adventures in Wonderland inspired The Chronicles of Narnia, Lord of the Rings and similar fare is undercut by Linda Woolverton's updated screenplay, a mash-up of Alice's Adventures with Carroll's Through the Looking-Glass and the creatures inhabiting his nonsense poem "Jabberwocky," as well as later elements from the English fantasy literature corpus. Although these narrative liberties may repulse English majors and Carroll purists, they do allow Burton the freedom to emboss the story with his own vision. What the director does with this license, however, is a conundrum worthy of a Mad Hatter riddle.
Ten years after her first trip to "Underland"—which she does not remember—a now-19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) finds herself at a personal crossroads. Following the death of her beloved father, Alice is due to marry a man she does not love in front a throng of family and friends on a Victorian estate. Problem is, Alice keeps wilting under the pressure and spying a strange white rabbit wearing a waistcoat and a pocket watch that, at the moment of her matrimonial truth, she chases, again, down the rabbit hole.
There, Alice encounters a host of familiar characters, starting with the White Rabbit (voice by Michael Sheen), then the chain-smoking Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas times two) and, of course, the tangerine-hued Hatter, played to Burtonesque delirium by Johnny Depp. Seems only Alice can save Underland from the clutches of the cruel, bulb-headed Iracebeth the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) by slaying the Jabberwocky and restoring Iracebeth's younger sister—the kindly, pacifist White Queen (Anne Hathaway)—to the throne.
Burton has always embraced the sentiment behind Alice's query, "What is the use of a book, without pictures or conversations?" There is wonder in the film's unrelenting visual design, comic spark and intriguing voice work—particularly impressive is the trippy cool of Rickman and Fry, while Christopher Lee is instantly recognizable as the Jabberwocky's resonant baritone. But, it is a sense of awe not shared by the surprisingly aplomb Alice. Burton's 3D pictorial of a young woman's arrested development and reluctant embrace of adulthood belies the fact that Alice's entire time underground is spent having one creature after another tell her where to go and what to do. Nonetheless, the Alice that crawls out of the rabbit hole has turned into a budding feminist with aims of carrying on the family business and blazing trade routes to China.
The pleasingly zany spectacle of it all comes at the expense of the story's soul. Beyond their collective lunacy—"We're all mad here," the Cheshire Cat famously informs—we barely ascertain any character motivation. The audience cranes its neck to hear a lone, brief exchange between the regal sisters, hoping for some nugget of exposition about the germ of their animus. The revelation that the Red Queen felt the need to behead her kingly husband passes quickly and without elaboration, much like the emotional undercurrent to her relationship with the head of her Army, the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover!).
Woolverton previously penned such inoffensive Disney offerings as Beauty the Beast and The Lion King. So, her Alice scrub is not that surprising, nor is the fact that Alice in Wonderland may well appeal to younger viewers looking for a slightly edgy, mostly palatable diversion—how else to contextualize Hatter's abominable final act breakdance? Burton has told interviewers that he never felt emotionally connected to Carroll's work, and here he seems to be trying—but failing—to bring more rhyme, reason and heart to the story. However, Alice's assertion proves to be as apt as ever: "I don't believe there's an atom of meaning in it."