‘Alice’ doesn’t live here anymore

Since Lewis Carroll (actually Charles Lutwidge Dodgson) was a mathematician at heart and trade, let me put Tim Burton’s adaptation of his novels in more formulaic terms:

“Nightmare Before Christmas”> “Ed Wood”> “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” > “Alice in Wonderland> “Sleepy Hollow”> “Planet of the Apes.”

 Awash in color and ablaze in design, Alice is certainly one of the best-looking films on the auteur’s resume. Many of the Burton stalwarts are on-board, Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar and muse Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter charismatically follow marching orders.

But Alice’s most recent rabbit hole romp is not as memorable as past excursions in this much-filmed tale. It’s a pity, too, for Burton’s skewed cinematic sensibilities seemed the perfect for for the anthropomorphic antics that make up Wonderland.

Though based on the books “Through the Looking Glass” and “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland,” it serves as a variation of a theme, concocting a newly penned return trip for a young adult Alice.

In the midst of a starched Victorian-era garden party, Alice is asked by Hamish, a ferret-y looking prude with tummy troubles, to marry him and lead a life of wealth and mediocrity.

She decides now is a good a time as any for to dive back into her human-sized worm hole and reconnect with her old friends. It truly is a world to behold. For the first time, (even by this avowed “Avatar” devotee) I was completely entranced by the three-dimensional world the technical wizards have created. I firmly believe that the whole 3-D boom is but a fad, but I would gladly shell out the extra cash for the silly wayfarer shades to become engulfed in such intricately designed locales. For it revealed layers that acted as multiple projections, each with a life of its own.

It’s rather a shame the same profundity bestowed on the visuals was not used in the verbal aspects of the film. Sure, there were the Carroll shout-outs (the unanswerable “Why is a raven like a writing desk?”), and there are some clever flourishes (“You’ve lost your muchness”), but the author’s dense prose receives a cotton-candy coating that dulls the philosophical edges of its source.

And that makes this “Alice” overcooked by about 30 minutes, with several sagging scenes that could desperately benefit from the blade of the ax-happy Red Queen. Rather disheartening.

Though it pains me to say it, Crispin Glover’s Knave of Hearts could have easily be excised in its entirety. It’s a shame, for it would awesome to see him and Depp really go at it and out-crazy one another. But despite a minor sword skirmish, the two share little time together, and Glover’s scheming, scar-faced suck-up is quite bland in a world in which vaporizing cats and hookah-huffing caterpillars.

That said, even a minor Burton film is immanently more entertaining than other kid-friendly alternatives on the market. But it’s about time for the director to start from his own templates, as he did with “BeetleJuice,” “Edward Scissorhands” and “Nightmare Before Christmas,” all films where he was capable of letting his just-this-side-of-Hell visions spread their dragon-like wings.

“Alice” is part of a two-picture deal with Disney, which will also allow him to revisit “Frankenweenie” a half-hour homage to Mary Shelley made in 1984, in which a boy brings his dead dog back to life. Perhaps he can again give even more life to that original creation than he was capable of doing with this adequate-but-reserved adaptation.

~ by usesoapfilm on March 9, 2010.

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