Love the largeness

Burtonâ??s mighty tale couldâ??ve been great, settles for good

Alice in Wonderland
Studio: Walt Disney Pictures
Rated: PG
Cast: Mia Wasikowska, Matt Lucas, Johnny Depp, Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen
Director: Tim Burton
WorkNameSort: Alice in Wonderland
Our Rating: 4.00

Picture this: A beautiful teenage girl with long, curly locks has hit the age of engagement and, ultimately, servitude, in Victorian England. She escapes her surprise (read: forced) engagement party only to fall down a rabbit hole and into a fantasy world of nonsense, riddles and adventure. 

It turns out, this girl, Alice (played adequately by 20-year-old Mia Wasikowska), has a history in this world, a great history of triumph and legend. The freakish inhabitants there regard her as a champion, and thanks to strange circumstances, Alice has been rendered literally oversized. It's a parallel universe to her stifled reality, one where she chooses her own path and, through her own mind, holds dominion. 

But suddenly, a pencil-thin authoritarian figure with facial scars called Stayne (an excellent, if awkwardly rendered Crispin Glover) pins her against a wall, lust and rage coursing through his spindly appendages. 'I love your largeness,� he hisses at her. 

If I've done the scene any justice, you're probably imagining an uncomfortable close-up shot, one rife with feminist symbolism and sexual aggression. A defining moment for our heroine's awakening. Now imagine that behind the camera sits Tim Burton, the macabre prince of modern cinema. Sounds great, right? 

So when I tell you that this moment, which falls about halfway through Burton's Alice in Wonderland, breezes through quickly, un-memorably and from a distance, you'll begin to understand the immense frustration that is this Wonderland, a sharply detailed, wondrously three-dimensional fantasy in which its maker intuitively grasps so much of what's good about the tale while simultaneously blind to what makes it great. 

Based on a mishmash of elements from author Lewis Carroll's two books of Alice's adventures, with a bit of American McGee's worthy 2000 video game adaptation thrown in for good measure, Burton's Wonderland propels Alice from the rabbit hole into a battle royal epic, where she might fulfill her pre-destiny as Wonderland's savior from the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, with surprising pathos). Helping her along the way are returning figures from her dreams, like the Cheshire Cat, Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Blue Caterpillar and, of course, the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). 

Burton handles this thrust with exceeding aptitude and unexpected restraint. Danny Elfman's requisite score pulls back considerably, residing in the realm of gentleness, and Burton wisely brings in Robert Zemeckis' set decorator, Karen O'Hara, to assist Burton's partner-in-goth Peter Young in getting away from the 'Burton look� that's become so tired. 

Depp brings his A-game as well, imbuing his Hatter with genuinely touching, vulnerable madness. His scatology eats at him, betrays him. It renders him frequently useless and even at times a burden to Alice that she tolerates with sensitivity as if he's an Alzheimer's victim. 

With so much goodness, it's disappointing, then, that Wonderland remains entrenched in mere agreeability and doesn't take off into the stratosphere of brilliance the way it so clearly wants to. It's hard not to blame Burton. As evidenced in the scene above, screenwriter Linda Woolverton, also a new presence for Burton films, loaded the film with great moments of chest-tightening uplift, but they whiz right over Burton's head. Even Wonderland's recognition of Alice is stifled and underplayed. For all of its flaws, Steven Spielberg's Peter Pan Revisited (Hook) at least gave us that eye-moistened awe on the faces of the Lost Boys that Pan left behind long ago, a magic-dusted acknowledgement of the sentimental place its source material holds in the audience's heart. It's manipulative, sure, but it's also a reason in itself to return to these places of enchantment. 

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