That's admittedly a strange way to begin a review, but Burton's version of the Lewis Carroll stories (equal parts remake and sequel) is admittedly a strange movie.
In this version, Alice (fresh face Mia Wasikowska) is 19, facing a less-than-exciting engagement and befuddled by recurring dreams of Wonderland in all its smiling-cat glory. After ditching her would-be fiance for a white rabbit (Michael Sheen, famous as David Frost in Frost/Nixon) in a waistcoat, Alice falls down the rabbit hole, and the classic hijinks ensue - tense confrontations with the decapitation-prone Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, replete with a digitally enhanced cranium), a zany tea party with The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), and a duel with the monstrous Jabberwocky (voiced with gusto by Christopher Lee).
I began the review as I did because I want to make it clear that the movie is as fun and enjoyable as most anything with Tim Burton's name on it. I also wanted to make clear that my disappointment with the movie doesn't hinder its capacity to be enjoyed by filmgoers. Okay, that's complicated - how can a movie's main flaw not be a flaw at all? Let's unpack that.
Beginning with the good news - the cast is vivacious and delightful as always. Johnny Depp gets his name before the title of the movie, likely because of his star power; his quirky eccentricities and a heavy dose of pathos in his backstory contribute to a fresh spin on the character, distancing him from the stereotypical nutjob as fully as Depp inhabits the character (which, like all his roles, is a complete immersion). HBC jokes that she plays in all of Burton's films because she's his wife, but the incontrovertible truth is that she's at her best when she's playing a completely disjointed person like the Red Queen; her first scene (in which she interrogates several frogs-in-waiting about her missing cranberry tarts) sets the stage for a mentally unhinged portrait, and her repeated cries of "Off with his/her/their head!" will make any filmgoer giggle with glee. As the White Queen (Red's sister), Anne Hathaway is - in Alice's parlance - "curiouser and curiouser," because I'm still not sure what to make of her; Hathaway bounds about the screen with the angelic grace of a waltz for one, but there seems to be a bit of madness ready to slip out at inopportune moments. Certainly this is an all-star cast (yes, that's Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar, here named Absolem), but keep your eyes on scene-stealer Matt Lucas, who ably juggles the dual role of eggbodied twins Tweedledum & Tweedledee (or is it the other way around?).
Screenwriter Linda Woolverton does a clever job of weaving a new through-line into the classic story; it's not spoiling anything to say that Alice is called upon to battle the Jabberwocky and dethrone the Red Queen, but there's a slyness at play that puts a new relevance on familiar occurrences. The Cheshire Cat matters more in this version; no longer is he just a grinning feline evaporating in the trees, but he's now a turncoat seeking redemption at every turn; similarly, the Mad Hatter's not mad per se, but he's getting there. Hats off (pardon the pun) to Woolverton, who also turned Hamlet into The Lion King.
So there's nothing really wrong with the movie, but here comes the bad news. The bad news is that Burton could have done much better. Again, that isn't to say that the movie's bad or missteps in any places, but there's a certain feel to the movie that doesn't quite match the Tim Burton style (wildly imaginative and visually disorienting in a Rembrandt kind of way). Maybe it's his fidelity to the source material; though the film has a smart new story arc, I have the same complaint about this one that I did about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. That is, there are certain story beats that any adaptation simply must hit, and there's a fine line there between pulling it off and feeling unimaginative; Alice has its moments, but it often feels like we're moving from room to room on a predestined chocolate factory tour.
Similarly, I felt like Depp was holding back in a lot of places; his Mad Hatter could have been so much more. What we get isn't bad - the decision to speak in a Scottish accent whenever provoked to anger is new and different - but perhaps I've come to expect too much. It's classic Depp, but perhaps "classic Depp" is last year's style. The film is "Classic Burton," too, but it never quite pushes the limit of what I've come to expect from the director. I've always considered 2007's Sweeney Todd to be the movie Tim Burton had been gearing up for his entire life, so it's a tough act to follow in that respect.
I can't say that anyone did any wrong here. Perhaps Depp and Burton's creative juices are on hold after Sweeney Todd (which, no matter what one feels about the movie as a musical, has to be awarded a medal for ambition and enthusiastic execution). Perhaps Disney held the reins too tightly on Burton and Co. (a slapdash nod to the 1951 animated version feels like the kind of overt nod that Burton's usually more subtle about). Whatever the case, I remain pleased but disappointed (if one can feel those two emotions at once) with Alice in Wonderland and look forward to Burton's next pairing with Depp - an adaptation of the campy vampire soap Dark Shadows.