O the murk, the mess, the acid-drenched eye candy, the incomprehensible babble emanating from Johnny Depp, the steampunky, dirty psychedelia of Tim Burton’s bastardized take(-off) on Lewis Carroll, Alice in Wonderland, his alternately diverting and dumpster-diving Babel.
Somewhere Burton is laughing his clown pants off over the box-office success of this, likely the most gruesome Disney flick in memory, cackling over the fact that he was able to lure parents and spawn in by the SUV-load to eyeball his muddy, goth-funhouse sequel-of-sorts to Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass. A truly unique moviemaker like Terry Gilliam, who can get as muddled as Burton, should take a cue and think about tackling some children’s classic — Green Eggs and Ham appears to be free — to fluff up his commercial track record.
As appealingly portrayed by the beatific Mia Wasikowska (so annoying and compelling in HBO’s In Treatment), Alice is now a nubile 19, ready to get hitched to an insufferable nobleman and ripe for an escapist return to Wonderland (really, Underland, though the inhabitants indulged the young Alice’s initial misunderstanding) when she spies a hare in a morning jacket at her would-be engagement party and gives chase.
After falling down a rabbit hole and growing very small and then very large and then very small once again in order to cross the portal into Underland, she discovers that the fantastic realm’s critters have been all a-twitter waiting for her — it seems she’s fated to slay the Jabberwocky, the dragon-like monster controlled by the Red Queen (Burton’s squeeze Helena Bonham Carter), who has supplanted her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and now rules Underland with an iron hand (the hand belongs to the Red Queen’s knight consort [Crispin Glover]). What’s in it for Alice? She’s here to get a hard lesson in Joan of Arc-style girl power, with a few blink-and-you’ll-miss-them morbid touches like a race across a moat on a quasi-bridge of decapitated heads (the Red Queen’s penchant for beheading her opposition is deliciously ironic considering the scene-stealing Bonham’s head of state sports a digitally inflated noggin and has an ego to match her physical monstrosity).
Along the way there’s ho-hum 3D — no competition for Avatar’s game-changing efforts — as well as oodles of critters. Some are more successfully endowed with wit worthy of Carroll than others (e.g., the stoney Absolem the Caterpillar [Alan Rickman] and the sly Cheshire Cat [Stephen Fry]). Johnny Depp’s scarily made-up, neon-hued, ADD-Carrot Top Mad Hatter is both the strangest and most incomprehensible of the lot: his Scottish brogue demands extensive subtitling and his off-key dance finale — a mad Michael Jackson homage — is just as garbled: his climactic boogie managed to drag me out of the film entirely. And it coyly points to the director’s divided mind and heart when it comes to Alice, a larky, WTF, and off-the-cuff effort that’s ultimately at odds with his more gothic sensibilities; it’s as conflicted as the Red and White Queens. I prefer my Burton as dark and perverse as his Sweeney Todd or a night in San Francisco’s Kink.com castle.