With Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham-Carter, Anne Hathaway. Rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar. 108 minutes.
When a new Tim Burton movie comes out, the question always which Burton it’s going to be. Is it going to be the brilliant stylist behind “Batman,” “The Nightmare Before Christmas” and “Sweeney Todd?” Or are we going to get someone on an out of control spree as in “Mars Attacks!” and “Big Fish?” Alas, ALICE IN WONDERLAND is the work of Bad Burton, and the movie is a complete mess.
That doesn’t mean it’s entirely without interest. What it means is that the visuals are overwhelming, the direction to most of the cast seems to be to chew the scenery, and that after the brilliance of the 3D effects in “Avatar” we’re back to a movie being released in 3D for no discernible reason. It adds nothing to the movie except making you wear those silly glasses.
The problem begins when you realize that in spite of the title, this isn’t “Alice in Wonderland.” Alice (Mia Wasikowska) isn’t a little girl but a 19-year-old who is supposed to marry some titled twit but has been troubled by recurring dreams about falling down a rabbit hole. Sure enough, she’s soon down the hole again, and can’t wake up. Although she’s trapped in a room with the vial marked “Drink Me” that makes her shrink and the cake marked “Eat Me” which makes her grow, it’s soon clear that Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton have a new story in mind. Most of the familiar characters show up, many of them quoting lines from Lewis Carroll’s classic book, but the grown-up Alice has a new task: to liberate the land from the tyranny of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter in what may be the worst performance of her career).
Since Johnny Depp is cast as the Mad Hatter, his part has to be built up, and comes close to becoming a love interest for Alice. In spite of his colorful make up and costume, the talented Depp has never been less interesting. Other characters are animated in various ways, with a voice cast that is largely wasted. The only actor whose voice is distinctive enough to be recognizable is Alan Rickman as the voice of the laconic Caterpillar.
As the plot puts Alice through her paces, Crispin Glover shows up as an evil knight in service to the Red Queen, and Anne Hathaway is lost as the good White Queen. Wasikowska tries to make Alice a credible character. As the only “normal” character on screen for most of the movie she comes across the best.
With odd moments of violence (including the plucking out of the eye of one creature and the on-screen beheading of another) mixed with other nightmarish images, this is an odd feature to go out under the Disney label. Older kids may not mind the muddled storytelling or cluttered visuals, but parents should be careful taking youngsters or very sensitive children to see “Alice in Wonderland.” It’s really not fun for the whole family.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being I’ll Have What She’s Having: Behind The Scenes Of The Great Romantic Comedies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Brookline.