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Grade C: Alice in Blunderland

Tim Burton's reimagining of 'Alice in Wonderland' is 3D, but feels flat

Chris Garcia
Mia Wasikowska, above, plays Alice, and Johnny Depp, top photo, is the Mad Hatter in Tim Burton's pallid film that meshes Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland' and its sequel, 'Through the Looking-Glass.'

Tim Burton wants you to think he's exquisitely daft, an artist-magician who can pull (white) rabbits out of his (mad) hat with such exuberance that you can't help but be delighted. But he's the kind of straining artist who wears you out. His visuals are garish and nifty, his boyish imagination impressively fertile. His limited storytelling skills, however, make many of his movies empty experiences, like gorging on frosting.

Burton's reliance on Johnny Depp to cute things up has also become tiresome. As Mad Hatter in "Alice in Wonderland," Depp does his entirely expected Depp thing, a convulsion of wide-eyed expressions and kewpie lips and a salad of accents and vocal timbres. Packed in kabuki make-up, he suggests Marilyn Manson with a flaming Bozo fright wig. Depp works his vaudevillian shtick hard, but it's so all over the place that a character never emerges from the fuss.

When I see that Depp is in another Burton movie — this is their seventh collaboration — I deflate, wondering how much mincing one actor can do before he's totally caricaturized himself. Depp no longer looks like the "daring" performer; he's become dismissibly silly.

For this Disney production, Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton ("The Lion King") smoosh together Lewis Carroll's Victorian fairy tales, "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and its sequel "Through the Looking-Glass," and wrap them in a conventional linear story that plays uneasily like "The Wizard of Oz."

Alice is Dorothy, plopped into a Technicolor dream world of dazzling foliage, where she meets a circus of beasties and oddities. Hatter is the friendly Scarecrow figure, Tweedledee and Tweedledum are Munchkins, the sadistic Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) is the Wicked Witch, and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) is Glenda the Good Witch.

As Dorothy was fated to destroy the Wicked Witch, Alice is fated to kill the dragonlike Jabberwocky and bring down the Red Queen. And then she, like Dorothy, wakes up.

As much as Burton tidies it up, the story tumbles forth in Carroll's phantasmagoric fashion, a stream-of-consciousness riff, with talking animals and insects enfolding the puzzled but strong-willed Alice (Mia Wasikowska, regally poised but upstaged by the buzz around her).

In flashback, the movie shows that Alice came to Wonderland when she was 6 and has returned at a plucky 19 to what's now called Underland. She shrinks and grows and does it all over again, and Burton neatly creates a place of off-kilter scale and wild asymmetries. The Red Queen's head, for instance, is disproportionately ginormous, as if inflated with helium.

Almost all of it is played for laughs, yet it's rarely funny. Most of the humor fell flat during a packed preview screening, a rare thing.

To Alice, things become "curiouser and curiouser." To me, nuh-uh. The movie gets more ordinary as it goes and you realize how much harder it is to wow audiences in these post-"Avatar" times. In fact, many of the forest action in "Alice" looks lifted from Pandora.

"Alice," like "Avatar," is 3-D. Unlike "Avatar," it wasn't filmed in 3-D. The process was added after shooting, and it looks cruddy. You never feel immersed in the scenery, and the 3-D glasses darken the images as sunglasses would. Remove your glasses during the show and see how much brighter the picture is.

You might also plug your ears: As in so many Burton movies, this one's smothered in Danny Elfman's accursed angel choirs that are supposed to spirit you away.

cgarcia@statesman.com; 445-3649

Rating: PG for fantasy action/violence, a smoking caterpillar. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. Theaters: Barton Creek, Cinemark Cedar Park, Cinemark Galleria, Cinemark Round Rock, Cinemark Southpark Meadows, Gateway, Lakeline, Metropolitan, Starplex, Tinseltown Pflugerville, Westgate. In 3-D: Alamo Lake Creek, Alamo South, Alamo Village, Barton Creek, Cinemark Cedar Park, Cinemark Galleria, Cinemark Round Rock, Cinemark Southpark Meadows, Gateway, Highland, Metropolitan, Starplex, Tinseltown Pflugerville, Westgate.