Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, and Anne Hathaway, in 'Alice in Wonderland'

Dir. Tim Burton
(2010, PG, 109 min)
★ ★ ½

Director Tim Burton goes to a lot off trouble to impress us in Alice in Wonderland, his CGI-heavy, live-action treatment of the Lewis Carroll classic, with a reported budget of $250 million. All that money is up there on the screen in lavish costumes, visual effects, and production design, and as spectacles go it’s genuinely diverting. But if it’s lacking in a greater sense of wonder, perhaps it has more to do with the presentation of the visual elements than the elements themselves.

I say this so infrequently about films: it should be twenty minutes longer. That might solve its greatest problem — it doesn’t stop to smell the roses. Alice is played by Mia Wasikowska, whose work on the HBO series In Treatment you should seek out. After tumbling down the rabbit hole, she is hurtled through a bizarre, hallucinatory world, but the camera never stops to behold. Settings and characters whiz by while Alice pouts; she doesn’t marvel at her surroundings, she wants to leave them.

The story feels like an outline of itself, establishing plot elements without elaborating on them. We know there’s a longstanding rivalry between the benevolent White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), but it isn’t developed; they share only one scene together. We know that the Red Queen took over the kingdom in a violent coup, and that Alice has visited Wonderland in her dreams throughout her childhood, but these events are described only in brief flashbacks. At the tea party of the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the characters speak at a mile a minute, especially March Hare (voiced by Paul Whitehouse), who has a screw loose and would be a delightfully anarchic presence at about two-thirds speed.

But there are fitful instances of whimsy and delight. The Cheshire Cat has a slow, elegant speaking voice courtesy of Stephen Fry and graceful movements that create a dreamlike effect. Alan Rickman splendidly voices the wise Blue Caterpillar, who has an especially touching scene as he prepares for his metamorphosis. Tweedledee and Tweedledum, as played by Matt Lucas, are lovably bewildered. There are frog servants and fish servants and dog servants — and look at the size of the Red Queen’s head! There are so many interesting things on screen at any given time, but the whirligig pacing is such that when it comes time to leave it isn’t a bittersweet farewell, like Dorothy leaving Oz. It’s just waking up.

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