Tim Burton's re-imagining of (or sequel to) the classic Alice in Wonderland takes us on a journey to a land that sometimes resembles Oz, and sometimes looks like a dark, wasted world typical of Burton's imagination, by means of a story that is less like Lewis Carroll's picaresque encounters with bizarre and inscrutable characters and more like a chronicle of Narnia in which the sword-wielding Alice, an armor-clad Joan of Arc, must fulfill a prophecy by slaying the Jabberwocky and deliver Underland from evil.
The film starts slowly. Alice has been taken to a garden party that turns out to be her own engagement party to an English nerd she has no intention of marrying. Although I was immediately captivated by the presence of Mia Wasikowska as Alice, the story bogs down in England until the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen) appears around a hedge and taps his watch, as though reminding Tim Burton to pick up the pace. Yes, indeed, time to get to Wonderland.
Down under we encounter some delightful allusions to Carroll's book: the drink that says, "Drink me," the cake that says, 'Eat me," and the caterpillar (wonderfully voiced by Alan Rickman) that says, "Who are you?" as it blows a cloud of smoke from its hookah pipe. But at first we find ourselves in a world that looks like Oz (see below). Throughout, the film mixes parts Ozian (evil sister versus good sister; Dorothy's sentimental relationship with the Scarecrow/ Alice's relationship with the Mad Hatter) with parts Narnian (good versus evil; the battle scene) and the result is any old fantasy adventure with swords, castles, and dragons.
Still, the film's art direction - always Burton's strength - is a pleasure to watch, as we are treated to images that range from the whimsical to the bleak.
It would be very disappointing to have an Alice in Wonderland re-imagining without a mad tea party. So we get a mad tea party - at its best when the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) and the Mad Hatter sling cups and cakes at each other - straining its welcome when it gets over-talkie, especially, I'm afraid, when it's the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) doing the talking. I think Johnny Depp's bizarre get up is spot on. But as soon as he opens his mouth, his voice is a strained attempt at sounding different that comes off like a Scottish Jack Sparrow. Sometimes his voice wanders into other realms of inflection; there's nothing consistent about it. He is sometimes funny, but more often his repetitive inanities about ravens and writing desks fall rather flat.
Meanwhile, Helena Bonham Carter is consistently brilliant as the Red Queen. Her eyes a glaze of soulless indolence, her voice tersely clipped out of the corner of her mouth, Bonham Carter makes us look forward to her every utterance. My favorite moment comes when she calls for a pig. "I need a pig here. I love a warm pig belly for my aching feet." In reference to the weird Tweedledee and Tweedledum twins she has captured, she says, "I love my fat boys." That was my second favorite moment in the film.
Bonham Carter, Wasikowska's Alice, and the beautiful art direction do their best to make up for a storyline that plops down lifelessly like the Jabberwocky's severed head.