Stop me if you've heard this one before. A literary adaptation by Tim Burton, set in a twisted, multi-coloured alternate universe, starring Johnny Depp as a borderline weirdo and Helena Bonham Carter as a loud-mouthed, pasty-faced kook. Sound familiar?
Alice In Wonderland is proof that somewhere down the Tim Burton timeline, in between making gothic fantasies and not combing his hair, he got lazy. In the last eleven years, Burton has made seven movies, six of which star his wife, while five star Depp, his favourite man-crush. All but one of them are adaptations of other people's work, the exception being Corpse Bride, which he only co-directed. Also, one of those seven movies was Planet Of The Apes.
You'll forgive me, then, if I'm not exactly willing to give him the benefit of the doubt. With Alice In Wonderland, Burton is effectively handing in a half-finished exam paper that deserves to have 'Must try harder - such a promising student' scribbled on it in red ink. Otherworldly fantasy? Colourful characters with quirks a-plenty? Cutesy storylines as 'dark' as a fat goth's pit stains? Check. Check. Check. The guy isn't even trying any more. This is just Charlie And The Chocolate Factory
with different hats.
Burton's 're-imagining' of Wonderland is actually a quasi-sequel, and sees Alice (newcomer Mia Wasikowska) return down the rabbit hole some years after her first visit. Not that you'd know it was a sequel, however; Burton's narrative essentially hits all the same story beats (rabbit hole, 'drink me', tea party, mad Queen, Jabberwocky etc.) as Lewis Carroll's original, while occasionally adding a wry, 'deja vu' commentary. In short: it's about as 're-imaginative' as every other Wonderland remake from the last 100 years.
So why revisit Wonderland unless you have a unique new take on it? Surely Burton - master of the stop-motioned and the hand-crafted - didn't take the trip because he wanted to show off fancy new 3D technology? He needn't have bothered. Even with the added dimension, this Wonderland looks flat; an ugly mess of clashing colours and over-familiar designs that's only brightened up by Carroll's characters pasted over it. I know it's supposed to be anything but 'real', but not once will you think that Wonderland is a place that exists anywhere other than some Disney coder's hard drive.
Wasikowska coasts from scene to scene with little impact, though the character of Alice never was the most dynamic soul. Depp adds a little edge as the Mad Hatter, but it's a practised zaniness - the kind of bonkers character that's best saved for the kiddies' bedtime stories. Helena Bonham Carter is the most fun as the Red Queen, complete with bulbous head and superiority complex, but it's little more than a well-dressed take-off of Miranda Richardson's Queenie from Blackadder. Anne Hathaway, meanwhile, is completely wasted as the White Queen; you'll forget she's even around. At least Crispin Glover feels suitably weird, although he probably wasn't even reading from the script.
But honestly... Depp as an unhinged nutter? Alan Rickman as a sarcastic caterpillar? Stephen Fry as a smug cat? Was Tim Burton late for a very important date during casting? I wish I'd created a 'Tim Burton bingo' card, because I'd be yelling 'House!' about now.
It's not like there's no promise in the story, either. Early on, during a Mad Hatter flashback, we see a frightening scene played out on a fiery backdrop, where the fearsome Jabberwocky attacks. The sky falls dark as Wonderland burns, and the residents flee in terror. It's fantastic, just so utterly fleeting. More edge would have done this Wonderland wonders. You may find yourself wondering what a Terry Gilliam or a Guillermo Del Toro could have done with it. Nobody wants to see Todd McFarlane's adult take on the story (requisite mention of creepy teen bondage), but material as potentially malicious as this is wasted on the ADD-afflicted kids it's aimed at - even though they'll love it.
Alice In Wonderland is not a disaster by any means, but it has to go down as a missed opportunity. Ten years ago, news of a Tim Burton-directed Wonderland movie would have had the geek-o-sphere spasming with delight. In the here and now, it's just another kooky kiddy movie that auto-pilot Burton could have landed with his eyes closed.
Time to take some of Lewis Carroll's advice, Tim: eat me.