GENRE: Adventure fantasy with twee literary origins (assuming “Tim Burton movie” doesn’t count as a genre)
THE PITCH: Before her engagement to a rich stuffed shirt, 19-year-old Alice Kingsley (Mia Wasikowska) makes an unexpected journey to the wonderland of her childhood dreams where she must team with old acquaintances, including the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), to overthrow the tyrannical rule of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).
MONEY SHOTS: Burton and his design team pig out on visual splendors, from the Red Queen’s disproportionate, bobble-like head to her retinue of talking animal attendants. Tiny Alice takes flight on the brim of the Mad Hatter’s top hat. Alice wins the favor of the huge, canine Bandersnatch. As armored playing cards clash with ambulatory chess pieces, Alice faces off with the dragon-like Jabberwocky, which wittily resembles the illustration from the original book.
BEST LINE: “Do you know what I’ve always dreaded?” asks Alice’s snobbish potential mother-in-law. “The decline of the aristocracy?” asks Alice. Plus, the script cleverly employs the White Queen’s (Anne Hathaway) famous motto: “Sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”
WORST LINE: “On that day, I shall futterwacken vigorously,” says the Hatter in an example of the script’s inventive, yet sometimes incomprehensible wonderlingo. (In case you’re curious, it’s a dance.)
HEAD COUNT: The characters live under constant threat of decapitation by the Red Queen (“Off with her head!”). Although we see virtually no on-screen fatalities, her castle’s moat contains more severed noggins than Burton's Sleepy Hollow. Maybe you can tell small kids they’re statues.
FASHION STATEMENT: Because of her constantly changing scale, Alice makes dresses out of an undergarment, a Barbie-type doll costume and some curtains, but finishes with shining armor à la Joan of Arc. (Some of her outfits keep her arms and shoulders bare, but Wasikowska’s 20, so you needn’t feel guilty for finding this Alice hot.) Depp’s green eyes, orange hair and chalky pallor make the Mad Hatter look like a desolate Raggedy Andy. Bonham Carter’s character nods to the Queen of Hearts with valentine-shaped lipstick. As the Knave of Hearts, Crispin Glover has a heart-shaped eye patch and a freakishly long torso.
VOICE CAMEOS: Harry Potter veterans Alan “Snape” Rickman, Timothy “Wormtail” Spall and Imelda “Umbridge” Staunton voice the caterpillar, a talking basset hound, and a talking flower, respectively. There’s also Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, “Little Britain’s” Matt Lucas as the Tweedles and, briefly, Christopher Lee as the Jabberwocky.
HOW’S THE 3-D? Obtrusive, but fun. Where Avatar avoided conspicuously thrusting or throwing junk at the audience and offered a more immersive experience, Alice has you ducking flying hats, teacups, Cheshire Cat heads and more. The 3-D effect leaves some colors looking flat and the CGI fakey, but the overall artificiality suits the classic topsy-turvy setting.
BETTER THAN THE BOOKS? No. Lewis Carroll purists will probably view the epic movie liberties Burton takes with the books as stuff and nonsense. Contrariwise, the original Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass prove to be so episodic, more faithful adaptations often result in sluggish narratives. Overall, Burton and scripter Linda Woolverton offer an imaginative riff on Carroll’s settings and characters worthy of fantasist Neil Gaiman.
THE BOTTOM LINE: “When is Alice like Luke Skywalker?” could be a riddle Burton’s film attempts to answer by sending the Victorian heroine on a surprisingly satisfying, feminist-oriented hero’s journey. Carroll’s famed absurdity doesn’t always mix with Hollywood screenplay formulae, and Burton’s Alice in Wonderland isn’t as warm or humorous as you’d hope. Despite the cheerfully hammy movie stars and incessant CGI tomfoolery, charming Wasikowska keeps her head.