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Alice in Wonderland

Once More Down the Rabbit Hole

Rating: 3 out of 5 Stars.

Tim Burton began his career as a Disney animator, and given his flair for strangely evocative images, brilliantly invested in movies like Edward Scissorhands, Batman Returns and Big Fish, that makes sense. All of which makes you wonder why Alice in Wonderland, his first live-action feature made specifically for 3-D, looks so ordinary.

It’s easy to spot the director’s influence in the uniquely demented appearance of the Mad Hatter, with his frazzled, russet mane and bulging, perpetually dilated pupils, and of the surreal Red Queen, with her freakishly oversized head and stick-thin torso. But the movie around them, while striking in spots, makes little use of its extra dimension. In the wake of Avatar and Disney’s A Christmas Carol, Burton’s take on the classic Lewis Carroll fantasy seems visually underwhelming.

So what of the story? Rather than delivering a straightforward take on Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, screenwriter Linda Woolverton draws heavily on characters and events from its popular but less memorable sequel, Through the Looking-Glass. The effect might be jarring to those expecting zany tea parties and courtroom theatrics centered on the mystery of the stolen tarts, but Burton’s Alice stands on its own. And it succeeds, to a point.

For that, Burton can thank longtime collaborators Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter. Depp, unrecognizable in the Hatter’s clownish makeup, further obscures himself behind an odd, high-pitched delivery — sometimes with a hint of a lisp, other times with an on-again, off-again Scottish accent. It’s a goofy performance, and it works perfectly: In a mad, mad world, Depp’s Hatter is madder still, a mercurial loon stricken by grief.

The cause of his unhappiness is the Red Queen, whose bloody reign has rendered Wonderland a barren, inhospitable wasteland. Bonham Carter plays the queen, and she’s mad, too — crazy, yes, but also cruel, capricious, and dangerously thin-skinned. Her petulance is played mostly for laughs, and Bonham Carter gives her bark an almost musical quality. Rarely has wretchedness seemed so delightful.

On leave from the real world, where her family expects her to accept a downright rotten marriage proposal, Alice (Mia Wasikowska, of Amelia), now 19, returns to Wonderland quite by accident, but learns her destiny soon enough — to defeat the Red Queen’s prized beast, Jabberwocky, and enable the rise of the far sunnier White Queen, played by Anne Hathaway. In the process, she will gain the confidence to take control of her life back in London.

Burton's Alice in Wonderland is hardly the definitive adaptation of Carroll’s story — that movie has yet to be made. But his slyly feminist take on the mythology is sweet and engaging without ever seeming vital. Like its incredibly shrinking heroine, it’s a genuine pleasure, but smaller than you might have expected.