As we know all too well by now, the pernicious next step from Hollywood's culture of sequels has been a culture dominated by remakes and "reboots" and "reimaginings." This commercial imperative has made stylists like Tim Burton very much in demand to bring fresh perspectives to shopworn stories. So when Disney decided to dust off "Alice in Wonderland" for another go -- recognizing the concept has been done to death in every medium -- the studio opted for a 3D romp, Burton-style.
It couldn't have been too hard a sell: mega-bucks to burn and choice, tailor-made parts for Burton's two most frequent screen partners, Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. But despite Depp's Mad Hatter and Carter's Red Queen, the "inspiration" on display feels, well, old hat. Here again are the gnarled trees, blasted landscapes, and coterie of weird characters, except more garish and lacking in the narrative vitality needed to complement the design. Too much of the film flies on autopilot, turbulence and all, to an ill-at-ease destination. (This Alice faces a capitalist fate that leaves an unpleasant aftertaste.)
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton ("Beauty and the Beast") takes a similar approach to "Hook," Steven Spielberg's revisit of "Peter Pan": a time jump and convenient amnesia allow an older hero -- in this case Mia Wasikowska's 19-year-old Alice -- to rediscover the childhood adventures depicted in Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass." This Alice is a runaway bride of sorts, taking "a moment" away from the marriage proposal of a Victorian prig. In short order, she tumbles down the ol' rabbit hole (the film's one notably effective 3D sequence). In the chamber below, she reenacts Carroll's pre-feminist puzzle of body consciousness to gain entry into Wonderland.
Thus begins an unconvincing mashup of "The Wizard of Oz" and, oh, let's say "Beetle Juice." Depp's carrot-topped, Kabuki-faced Mad Hatter is a partly effective, insane but sweet stand-in for the Scarecrow, while the Red Queen and White Queen (Anne Hathaway) have a Wicked Witch of the West, Good Witch of the North thing going on. It doesn't help that Hathaway charmlessly acts as if lost in a druggy haze, and that the literary Alice's defining characteristic, her precocious impertinence, becomes somewhat lost in Wasikowska's sleepy translation.
Woolverton replaces the quaint charm of Carroll's set pieces with a plot built around the "Jabberwocky" poem from "Through the Looking-Glass." A magic parchment known as the "Oraculum" lays out Wonderland's day-at-a-time destiny, predicting "the frabjous day" when Alice will assume the "vorpal sword" and slay the Red Queen's agent of destruction, the Jabberwock. It's a (rote) journey to self-discovery of a throw-down woman-warrior role, complete with suit of armor.
It's all more tiresome than entertaining, especially with mind-numbing CGI exhaustion setting in early. Only one element consistently fires on all cylinders: the spot-on Red Queen. Carter has a grand old time emotionally abusing everyone in her path and, of course, ordering beheadings. In the film's most artful use of digital effects, Carter's head balloons into a wide-angle without the lens; her noggin is the one part of the film you'll be glad to find overblown.