Johnny Depp leads Burton’s mad, mad, mad, mad “Alice”
‘Alice In Wonderland’ (*** out of 4)
Tim Burton might be running out of noteworthy things to say – five of his last seven pictures are remakes or adaptations of familiar materials, after all – yet to his credit, he’s still finding creative ways to converse with his loyal audience.
Take Burton’s latest, “Alice In Wonderland,” a demented adventure based¬ more on the director’s macabre interpretation of Lewis Carroll’s novels than on the authors stories themselves. Set 13 years after the “Alice” stories of our collective youth, Burton’s take finds a teenage Alice (Mia Wasikowska, powdered and pale like most of the director’s corpse brides) plunging down the rabbit hole to escape an arranged marriage to a unpleasant duke (Leo Bill). She lands in a rundown photocopy of Wonderland, a neglected fantasy realm that resembles a mental institute. Though she has no memory of a prior visit, friends remember her – or argue whether or not she’s the right Alice. Squabbles are put on hold, however, when Alice is recruited for a mission to rescue a kidnapped Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) and slay the Jabberwooky, a dragon creature.
Burton carries his characters over from Carroll’s books. The deranged Hatter and his tea-table denizens are opposed by the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her mighty minion, Stayne, the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover). The White Queen (Anne Hathaway) watches from a distance until it is time to interfere. But these recognizable players seem borrowed and placed in service of an adventure that’s very much Burton’s own. On the sliding scale of cinematic tributes, Burton’s “Alice” stays more faithful to its source material than the “Planet of the Apes” remake, yet not quite as reverent as the triumphant “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” reimagining.
And that’s OK, for some odd reason. Filtering any story through Burton’s prism instantly turns it darker – and “Alice” was plenty twisted on its own. I’ll be the first to tell you I’m tired of Burton and Depp coasting on white-faced, carbon-copied caricatures of stories we cherish, yet sitting through “Alice,” I ultimately appreciated the bizarre avenues this film fearlessly explored. Carter walks away with the picture, delivering a full-fledged performance as the short-tempered Red Queen with facial expressions and perfectly timed line deliveries. Wasikowska is comfortable in Burton’s world, and helps sell the film’s conventional but appreciated messages about finding one’s own path and embracing personal dreams. It’s a common theme to Burton’s work, yet Burton’s work – as usual – is uncommon.
And that’s the hook. Burton’s “Alice” exists at our wit’s end. It embraces the mind’s fringe, and dares us to join in the lunacy. Once I stopped comparing Burton’s choices to his predecessors – which happened early on – I appreciated the lavish, luscious production design that went into his unbalanced world. And though I did see “Alice” in 3-D, you don’t have to. I’m pretty sure the 2-D version will be equally rewarding (and less expensive per ticket).