Director Tim Burton has made a franchise out of casting Johnny Depp in roles of inspired madness, melancholy or semi-horror: Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005), Ichabod Crane in Sleepy Hollow (1999) and the namesake characters in Sweeny Todd (2007) and Edward Scissorhands (1990). The two are at it again in Disney's Alice in Wonderland, and Burton is up to his usual tricks in imagining lavish sets, costumes and creatures, and the almost velvety 3-D Wonderland is full of lavender mushroom caps, furry rabbits, and the puggishly charming Tweedledee and Tweedledum.
Anyone expecting or desiring a good dose of menace from Depp as the Mad Hatter, or any of the other obsessive Wonderland creatures, is in for some weak tea. The Hatter is almost fatherly and mentoring to Alice (Mia Wasikowska), and she's far too serene throughout, never terribly bothered by the Red Queen's (Helena Bonham Carter) frequent call for heads to roll. Surprisingly, Burton goes easy on the 3-D thrills — even the tumble down the rabbit hole seems uninspired and barely disconcerting. Lewis Carroll's story has an internal device (the Oraculum, a document revealing fated days and events) forcing the tale's sense of inevitability, but Burton's earnest tone and properly dry and sedate British moods remove any doubt that the story might not follow the script. By the end, Burton stretches for quirky visual stunts, like the Hatter's dance, that make you wonder if he was bored with the story.
Given that Alice speaks so fondly of the mad being the best type of people and the virtues of imagining impossible things, this film could be more wondrous. But Disney is probably comfortable that children won't have nightmares like Alice does about this colorfully playful world. — Will Coviello
Alice in Wonderland (PG)
Directed by Tim Burton
Starring Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter