It’s expected that a 2009 adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s Victorian-era Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass would engage in some major contemporary revisionism, and the biggest change in Tim Burton’s new 3-D movie version is to make Alice the kind of defiantly strong-willed, proto-feminist, no-nonsense action-hero suitable for a PG-rated action-fantasy seeking to do Lord of the Rings-level box-office business. It’s a mistake — as played by Mia Wasikowska, she’s charmless, borderline petulant and too often a disengaged observer to all that’s happening around her until she must rise to the occasion by donning armor and slaying a monster (the dragon-like Jabberwock).
As a result, Alice and her story have been blanded out and made dreary; she’s the mere supporting carriage for the parade-float-like procession of CGI-augmented special effects and Burton-approved art design, costuming and make-up. One longs not just for Carroll’s twisted wit but also for the pleasure and sense of delightful escapism of movies like Labyrinth and Princess Bride.
This is also the first new adventure movie to come off badly in comparison to James Cameron’s Avatar — not only in its use of 3-D but also in the way Cameron’s film presented a female character (Neytiri) whose personality was not merely subsumed by the need for her to be in lots of chase and fight sequences.
Still, some of what Burton has rendered is very good. Helena Bonham Carter’s evil Red Queen, her bulging big head atop a miniaturized body, shouts “off with their heads” with comic aplomb. Matt Lucas’ CGI-assisted Tweedledee and Tweedledum are roundishly plump yet also agile.
Others miss, especially Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. Thick with Bozo-ish red hair, a Letterman-like gap in his teeth and heavy eye shadow, he wanders between being mad, being Red Skelton-like gentle and being crafty without being striking either way. And some of the surreal set design is, typical of Burton, too studied to bear life.
The story, adapted by Linda Woolverton, borrows from both Carroll books: A 19-year-old Alice, fleeing a piggish would-be fiancé, follows a rabbit down a hole into “Underland” where the occupants are awaiting her. The tip-off to the movie’s intentions comes early, as Alice flies through the hole dodging asteroid-like rocks hurtling at her in 3-D.
Whatever its literary pedigree, this is going to be the kind of family-safe action movie we’ve seen before. That’s a big disappointment. Grade: C
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