Late in Tim Burton’s worthless Alice in Wonderland, the blue caterpillar Absalom (Alan Rickman) teases the now-grown Alice (Mia Wasikowska) about her initial trip down the rabbit hole, which she remembers each night in her sleep but has convinced herself is nothing at all more than a dream. He speaks of the encounters she had and mistakes she made some 13 years ago in the land that he and his countrythings call—inexplicably to this point—the “Underland.” Silly little Alice misheard them, or misunderstood. She thought she was in a Wonderland.
Let no mistakes be made this time: This is not Wonderland, and the easy, stupid gag of lobbing off the “w” only hints at the vapidity of Disney’s epic middle finger to Lewis Carroll. First, as you’ve gathered, this is not a retelling or even reconfiguring of Carroll’s beloved book. We first meet this Alice as the feisty young woman she has become arrives at a Victorian garden party, where a stuffy would-be suitor asks for her hand in marriage. But then a white rabbit in a waistcoat shows up, and she bolts. Soon enough she’s falling, drinking, and shrinking.
To this point Burton and company play it coy, as if to ensure our confusion and disappointment once it’s revealed that Alice has indeed been summoned back to Wonderland—sorry, “Underland”—to slay the foul Jabberwocky and return the crown from the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) to her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Naturally, there are plenty of old friends standing by to aid in her subsequently dull, episodic quest, from the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) to that mad old Hatter (Johnny Depp.)
It’s bad enough that Alice in Wonderland is something of a secret sequel (a flashback suggests it’s the direct descendant of Disney’s animated telling, but that may just be the obligatory winks talking) but much worse is Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton’s choice to frame it as a turgid, third-rate fantasy film with Carroll’s creations pasted crudely on top. They’d no doubt respond by pointing out the painstaking nods to the books, much of which show up in the language of the Underlanders, who off-handedly mention otherwise unrepresented Wonderland events and draw liberally from Carroll’s lexicon of nonsense. Having supplanted the books’ whimsy with an impotent attempt at edginess, though, these cheap flourishes are distancing, and draw attention to a damning priority of reference over reverence. Woolverton’s script seems itself a primer on Hollywood’s basest cannibalistic tendencies, trading heavily on the iconic material it so savagely insults and defiling lines like “Why is a raven like a writing desk?” and “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast” with shallow emotional “discoveries.”
This creative vacuum isn’t entirely surprising, of course, seeing as how “Tim Burton does Alice in Wonderland with Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter” was probably green-lit before it fully emerged from some anonymous Disney executive’s mouth. Depp does his part to serve the film’s lowly aims by blending his fey Willy Wonka with a here-and-there Scottish brogue in a performance only remarkable for its utter lack of menace; at least Crispin Glover, as the Red Queen’s knave, seems to be intentionally just getting things over with. Only Hathaway really seems to be having any fun, gracing a small role with precisely the mania and glee we’d have expected from everyone else.
This, I suppose, is what it has come to for Tim Burton, who is beyond realizing just how obvious it is for him to be making an Alice film in the first place. 2007’s Sweeny Todd gave a brief glimpse of why press releases still get away with calling him a “visionary,” but Alice in Wonderland confirms that Burton is by this point little more than a brand in decline, defined much more by Colleen Atwood’s costumes and Danny Elfman’s scores (not to mention teams of art directors who likely got into the game by aping his cartoon Gothicism and now do so professionally) than any directorial voice. There is nothing to Alice in Wonderland that anyone else with the same collaborators couldn’t have done just as well; at the very least a no-name with something to prove might not have been so egotistically indifferent to the result.
One last thing: If Avatar convinced mass audiences of 3D’s value, Alice is glad to illustrate that it shouldn’t be an automatic upsell. Burton’s film was post-processed for 3D rather than shot for it, and the modest depth of field isn’t nearly worth the frequently unpleasant side effects of 3D-unfriendly quick cuts and camera moves. If this review hasn’t saved you 12 bucks, at least let it save you three.