Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, first published in 1865, is the sort of fractured-reality fairy tale that’s designed to strike adults much differently than it does children. For anyone old enough to know, the Queen of Hearts is a savage parody of a certain autocratic breed of political high haughtiness; for kids, she’s just a witchy lady with a frighteningly big and ugly head. Carroll’s classic, of course, is far from the only kiddie fantasia that operates on levels children can’t see. What’s unique about it is that an adult’s raised-eyebrow smirk is built into the very tone and structure of the story. Once Alice tumbles into Wonderland, everyone she meets is, if not certifiable, then a blithely self-absorbed, nattering crackpot-narcissist. The book is a visionary satire of the newly emerging modern world, in which everyone is really babbling to no one but themselves.
The challenge of adapting Alice in Wonderland is this: How do you create relationships, a story, a purpose out of a tale whose prime purpose is not to have one? Tim Burton, with his crazy love for rabbit-hole alternative worlds (Beetlejuice), baroque oddballs (Batman, Edward Scissorhands), and kiddie fables told with a cynical wink (Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), would seem to be the perfect director to adapt Carroll’s legendary tale and make a memorable, zany-dark movie out of it. But Burton’s Disneyfied 3-D Alice in Wonderland, written by the girl-power specialist Linda Woolverton (Beauty and the Beast), is a strange brew indeed: murky, diffuse, and meandering, set not in a Wonderland that pops with demented life but in a world called Underland that’s like a joyless, bombed-out version of Wonderland. It looks like a CGI head trip gone postapocalyptic. In the film’s rather humdrum 3-D, the place doesn’t dazzle — it droops.
Alice, instead of the spunky girl we remember, is now a rather stern 19-year-old Victorian ingenue who is visiting the place for the second time, even though she can hardly remember the first. (No, it doesn’t make any more sense when you’re watching it.) She seems actively annoyed to be there. The young actress Mia Wasikowska, with her Pre-Raphaelite look, gives Alice a beaming sensual intelligence (she frowns beautifully), but wherever Alice goes, she never displays the slightest hint of curiosity. The characters she meets are certainly eye-catching. The White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) percolates with antic charm, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas) are fleshy twins that make it look as if Glenn Beck had just given birth to Cabbage Patch Kids. The Cheshire Cat, with electric blue stripes, is voiced by Stephen Fry in drolly amused dry-sherry tones.
Then there’s Johnny Depp, who plays the Mad Hatter with radioactive emerald eyes, an exploding Bozo carrot top, and a gaze of luminous dementia. He’s a fantastic image, but once Depp opens his mouth, what comes out is a noisome Scottish brogue that makes everything he says sound more or less the same. The character offers no captivatingly skewed bat-house psychology. There isn’t much to him, really — he’s just a smiling Johnny one-note with a secret hip-hop dance move — and so we start to react to him the way that Alice does to everything else: by wondering when he’s going to stop making nonsense. Depp’s counterpart in shrill sameness is Helena Bonham Carter, who plays the Red Queen (a composite of the Queen of Hearts and a character from the 1872 Alice sequel, Through the Looking-Glass) in striking Klaus Nomi makeup, but without much to say besides ”Off with his head!” Boy, does that get old.
The movie cobbles together both of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books and his fantastical-beastie poem ”Jabberwocky.” But it also fluffs out the tale with a bland mash of Disney heroics. The Red Queen has a saintly sister (Anne Hathaway, made up for some reason to look like the Italian porn-star politician La Cicciolina), Alice has to fight a dragon — the Jabberwocky! — and the film builds to a CGI battle that might have come out of a lesser Narnia sequel. By the end you’re asking, Where’s the wonder? C