Tim Burton's new 3-D carnival, Alice in Wonderland, is a wild amusement that would probably be given more credit if Burton hadn't already squeezed so much out of his own schtick. It's adventurous, absurd, playful, and curious, but its substance is entirely in the style. Even so, as an adventure story judged as pure entertainment, it's a modest but certain success.
The story begins with Alice, a petulant teenager, being tricked into attending her own engagement party, where she comes face to face with all the pettiness and frustration of the adult world. She escapes from the proposal of a wealthy, uptight suitor by dashing into a conveniently placed hedge maze and falling into a very large rabbit hole. There, she finds a strange world that resembles her own recurring dreams… a place with a smoking caterpillar and a mad hatter, talking animals, and a kingdom in the shadow of a rivalry between two sisters: a pacifist white Queen (who's happy to condone violence, even though she doesn't participate in it) and a tyrannous Red Queen who seems to have upset the balance of good and evil in this colorful bizarro-world.
The story, as a whole, is a riff on the original Alice in Wonderland that doesn't make much of its departure. The backstory that Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is the long-lost child messiah, returning to rescue the kingdom from ruin, seems largely unnecessary, an excuse to use Lewis Carroll's images in service of a more action-oriented plot. We know going in that the Red Queen must be the villain, and we realize almost immediately that all the other familiar characters are going to be allies in the revolt. These familiar characters include a number of forgettable supporting parts: Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the loony March Hare, the original very late White Rabbit, the Dormouse, the Cheshire Cat, Absolem the Caterpillar, and a hunting dog to add a bit of wounded pathos. Alongside these are the key players, who are given at least a bit more attention: the noble-if-a-bit-weird White Queen (Anne Hathaway), the bullying Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), and the Mad Hatter, a part redeemed by Johnny Depp, who manages to make the character interesting.
Depp's performance deserves a remark here. His Mad Hatter is probably the most interesting of the characters, including (and especially) Alice herself, who's just a mannequin on which to hang lessons about individuality and self-discovery. Depp's Mad Hatter is a different story: he's a nostalgic Wonderland loyalist, the wise and purposeful lunatic, a classic "trickster" figure who prompts most of the major plot developments. Depp manages to take his manic, absurdist part and bring something genuinely sad to it, even at his silliest moments. The Hatter channels a sense of defeat, even unto the end of the story, which is really the only way we ever feel an emotional connection to Wonderland itself.
Helena Bonham Carter's Red Queen is the other character to watch for. The performance is in the details, and in Carter's quirky treatment of the material. Her squawking screams and unpredictable comic timing make her a worthy counterpoint to Depp's wacky sagehood, and every so often, we see her isolation and sense of hopelessness slip through her tyrannical self-indulgence and myopia. It's no challenge to make her evil, but we have to give Carter and Burton credit for making her so pitiable.
As a cinematic achievement, Alice doesn't break much ground. However, it must be given its due. The film is clearly a display case for Burton's propensity for creating bizarre worlds, colorful characters, mind-boggling costumes, and edifying comedic moments. In this capacity, it works wonders; it moves quickly and never becomes plodding or repetitive, and the spectacle is always enough to keep our interest aflame. Stylistically, it's predictable but ambitious, and each scene delivers something striking to the senses.
What about the 3-D? Like most of the technical aspects of Alice in Wonderland, it does its job, and makes a worthwhile contribution to the whole. The 3-D isn't overused or gimmicky, as it seemed in the trailer; instead, it makes a completely ridiculous world seem a little more embodied and immersive. The third dimension places us squarely within the strange spaces that Alice is navigating, and this improves the spectacle by bringing it closer to us. When you've created such an outrageous place, you want to use every possible trick to make it feel like a real-life experience
Overall, Alice in Wonderland is a live-action cartoon in the proud tradition of Speed Racer and 300, benefiting from the volatile visual imagination of Tim Burton. Its emotional and narrative content is indulgent, and why not? It will be regarded as a fun, empty spectacle, and this is as it should be. Avatar should have been seen the same way, rather than as a momentous historical achievement. Both films are little more than technical showcases built upon adventure plots, and both films are simple, easy amusement. Burton, who's made some intense, challenging films, deserves a project like this, where he's free to push the boundaries of his signature style and flexible imagination. To this end, Alice in Wonderland is a noteworthy accomplishment.