Alice in Wonderland
Directed by Tim Burton

Before the London premiere, before the posters of a washed-out Anne Hathaway, before the teasers in Variety, and, for that matter, before Sweeney Todd, you knew this was coming. You probably could’ve cast it too. Helena Bonham Carter, predictably freakified as the Red Queen; Johnny Depp as a curiously layered Mad Hatter; even Alan Rickman, post-Rowling, seems an inevitable choice for that lugubrious prophet, the Blue Caterpillar. So give Tim Burton credit that, despite his overestablished Gothic shtick, Alice in Wonderland still manages to surprise.

The off-guard moments come at a cost, of course; this is no version of Wonderland Lewis Carroll would recognize. (In fact, the place is called “Underland”; it was Alice’s malapropism, the film suggests, that caused the confusion to begin with.) Burton’s version picks up a round dozen years after the action of Through the Looking Glass. Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is 19, still haunted by a recurring dream of talking animals and, in the grand Victorian tradition, stifled, sensing that she should avoid marrying a sallow, snivelling lord but not knowing how or why. Cue the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), who leads her down the hole and into the wasteland Underland has become under the reinstated Red Queen. Tweedledum and Tweedledee—here, bloated and plodding in the Dudley Dursley vein—and a field mouse grill her, eventually deciding that she’s “the wrong Alice”—not the champion, in other words, that the critters of Underland have been waiting for.

Alice finds a somewhat warmer welcome when she happens upon a tea party, where the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse) hurls saucers and Scottish invective with equal abandon. The Mad Hatter, looking as frayed as the gloomy world around him, recognizes Alice immediately but laments that she isn’t the same: “You’ve lost your…muchness,” he tells her tenderly. Alice protests; she still doesn’t remember the rabbit hole or the looking glass or anything else for that matter, so she’s understandably confused at mounting calls for her to wield an implement known as the Vorpal Sword against a scaly, manxome foe with “jaws that bite” and “claws that catch.”

Carroll purists will be similarly thrown by this point, but Burton’s interpolation of the “Jabberwocky” poem comes off rather well, setting up a very conventional Danny Elfman-scored action-adventure dénouement whose narrative straightforwardness is the most serious departure from Carroll’s logic-addled vision. Yes, the sophism and wordplay of the original get pretty much stripped from the proceedings, and the rhapsodic fusion of the ridiculous with the mundane tilts heavily in favor of the former; the ending is frankly baffling, and involves a homily from Alice in which, returned from the bizarro world, she tells her stuffy fellow Victorians—hello!—what she really thinks of them. (A pre-credits anticlimax, aboard a boat, splits the difference between girl-power cliché and Titanic-style sentimentality.)

Depp, for his part, avoids obvious choices; it would have been child’s play for Captain Jack to mug his way through a ritualistically slap-happy role. Instead, Depp diversifies the weirdness—now mischievous, now courtly, speaking in moments of measure with a refined accent and reverting in moments of action to the Scottish burr that, inexplicably but awesomely, lurks just beneath. When he laments that he was once the greatest “futterwhacker in all of Wit’s End,” and promises that he will “futterwhacken…vigorously” upon the White Queen’s reinstatement, your sides will split. (It’s a dance—a kind of boneless macarena—whose name is funnier than its execution.) Crispin Glover provides a wicked Knave of Hearts that Marty McFly might’ve dreamt up in the ’80s. As the White Queen, Anne Hathaway holds her own against a typically crisp Bonham Carter, even if she’s given little to do but flit. As Alice, Wasikowska receives something of a bum deal: Burton’s protag is a lot less charming than her paper and ink counterpart, and she spends much of the film hoping to avoid her destiny. (Before kicking some serious Jabberwock ass.) All the more impressive, then, that Wasikowska keeps you in her corner for just south of two hours. And that her will-it-won’t-it tension with the Hatter proves an interesting addition to Carroll-sexuality studies (see: Alice’s Adventures Under Ground.)

All of this is fast-and-loose stuff indeed; Burton’s Alice is not a character, but a franchise. Sure, we’ll never get to see the faithful adaptation that some of us had wanted. But Burton, for good or ill, sidestepped a twice-told tale, opting instead for a piece of visual pyrotechnics (did we mention it’s in 3D?) that also says something new under the sun. No masterpiece, but pretty damn frumious nonetheless.