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Saturday, March 6, 2010

Burton in Wonderland

Alice is Off Her Head

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Tim Burton is obviously drawn to the look if not the substance of Victorian Gothic, and to protagonists relentless in their refusal (or inability) to conform. Little wonder he wanted to direct Lewis Carroll’s Alice inWonderland, a Victorian classic about a girl who flings herself down a rabbit hole into a world where the tedious logic of Western civilization is made to dance on its head.

Alas, Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is a largely mirthless enterprise. The director appears more interested in mining the attention deficit demographic than interpreting the richness of the story. For many stretches, Alice the Movie is a kinetic spectacle of seen-it-before computer graphics as not so marvelous beasties chase each other across a fantasy landscape.

Burton conceived his film as a sequel to Carroll’s story, which is not a bad idea (even though Carroll wrote his own sequel whose plot is unrelated to Burton’s). In the film version, Alice has become a young woman whose only memory of her childhood adventure in Wonderland is an odd, recurring dream. Bright and imaginative in a rigidly disapproving Victorian upper class society, she is prodded to marry a wealthy lord, a twit of the first order. Alice escapes the engagement party by dashing after a waist-coated rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) down his hole and into the Wonderland of unconscious memory. Burton’s scenario could work as social satire if only it were funny.

Johnny Depp was born to play the Mad the Hatter, and his fright-wigged performance is among the film’s bright spots, along with the imaginative visualization of the enigmatic Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry) as a creature capable of dissolving into a cloud of smoke. Helena Bonham Carter delivers one of her trademark whackjob performances as the Red Queen, her character transformed into a tyrant in a story that begins to resemble Narnia shorn of spiritual allegory. The moral of Burton’s Alice in Wonderland, that all the best people are a little off their heads, is the motif behind most of his films. He has done a better job elsewhere of presenting the idea.