In the new "Alice in Wonderland," the wonderfully well-chosen Australian actress Mia Wasikowska embarks on her character's quest to recover her "muchness," while director Tim Burton wages a war against his own.
The struggle is worth it. The movie won't be for everyone — it's a little rough for preteens, and it doesn't throw many laughs the audience's way — but along with "Sweeney Todd," this is Burton's most interesting project in a decade. For every familiar Maxfield Parrish landscape, there's a more arresting and peculiar detail to catch your eye. Or your ear, despite a dull Danny Elfman musical score: A key moment late in the game relies on the thump-thump-thump of something massive rolling down a long, long staircase.
It's tempting to imagine what Burton might have done with Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass" 20 or so years ago, with a budget on the scale of "Beetlejuice," which remains one of the director's great unruly achievements. But commercial artists move on, and Burton's new extravaganza, the second Disney-backed "Alice" and a bookend to the cheerily benign 1951 animated version, has been decked out in 3-D (though photographed in 2-D and later converted). It's best approached as corporate undertaking, undertaken successfully.
Odd? Yes, it's full of oddities. Then again, most film versions of "Alice" have been odd, from the 1933 Paramount version (leaden as it is, I still wake up screaming over some of its more grotesque flourishes) to the bone-dry, marvelously witty 1966 Jonathan Miller version (Peter Cook, John Gielgud, Peter Sellers and Leo McKern, plus the music of Ravi Shankar).
The central idea in screenwriter Linda Woolverton's version veers dangerously close to "Hook," the dubious "Peter Pan" riff. After being plagued by girlhood Wonderland nightmares of a place she remembers as Wonderland (in this version, its official handle is Underland), Alice is now 19 and about to be fobbed off on a Victorian simp of a suitor at a manor garden party. She spies an old friend: a hare with a timepiece. She flees in pursuit, and soon she's falling down a rabbit hole once again.
The kingdom of Underland is ruled with a iron fist by the Red Queen ( Helena Bonham Carter, with digitally enlarged noggin). Screenwriter Woolverton worked on "The Lion King," and there's a related premise at work here, that of a lovely, dangerous place run into the ground by a despot. The Jabberwock must be destroyed in order to restore Underland to the benevolent administration of the White Queen ( Anne Hathaway). Johnny Depp's lisping, top-hatted hatter plays a key role in the transition of power.
While certain action sequences, such as the climactic battle, recall similar bits from Burton's "Planet of the Apes" remake — which is to say, they're virtually impossible to recall — one gets tangy reminders often enough of Burton's imagination. He heightens the malevolent pageantry in Carroll's work and while one misses the verbal dexterity of Miller's BBC version (newly available on DVD),Its best and strangest interludes assert Burton's skills as a fantasist, as well as Depp's as a squirrely, inventive character actor.
It helps that the bookend sequences actually work. We see Alice's stultifying family and relatives and probable future laid out before her, like a miserable Merchant-Ivory parody, and therefore feel some investment in her adventure. Wasikowska cuts through the excess with her plaintive sincerity and utter lack of cant. After struggling vocally in "Sweeney Todd" it's good to see Bonham Carter (Burton's partner in real life) in high form again, fearsome as well as eccentric.
Top-billed Depp doesn't really dominate the film so much as unsettle it, slyly. While he doesn't confine the Mad Hatter to as brittle (and misjudged) a shell as he did the eerily Michael Jacksonian Willy Wonka in Burton's "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" (a film I found less enjoyable than this one), Depp remains a risk-taker, and an affecting one. I hope Burton and Depp continue their fruitfully nervy collaboration. Long may they both juggle commercial diversions like this one with less commercial ones — because you never know when something as droll as "Ed Wood" will come along.
MPAA rating: PG (for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar)
Cast: Mia Wasikowska (Alice); Johnny Depp (Mad Hatter); Helena Bonham Carter (Red Queen); Anne Hathaway (White Queen); Crispin Glover (Stayne); and the voices of Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Alan Rickman, Barbara Windsor and Timothy Spall
Credits: Directed by Tim Burton; written by Linda Woolverton, based on "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and "Through the Looking-Glass" by Lewis Carroll; produced by Richard D. Zanuck, Suzanne Todd, Jennifer Todd and Joe Roth. A Walt Disney Pictures release. Running time: 1:49.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times