The rule of Lewis Carroll's Wonderland, like that of dreams, is that there are no rules. The same could be said about the films of Tim Burton, a master craftsman of the intimately grandiose. His version of Alice in Wonderland is a succession of fantastically gothic pranks—noisy, exhausting, and under-realized, but also frequently dazzling and frightening. Jan Svankmajer's superior Alice, another perverse but smaller-scale pageantry, interpreted Alice's thorny travels through Wonderland as a reckoning between the girl and her unconscious desires, whereas Burton understands and respects Carroll's classic text purely as a study of propriety, delighting in presenting his heroine's anarchic journey as something akin to a feminist rising.
This Alice in Wonderland is perhaps best enjoyed as a carnival ride, with Johnny Depp's Mad Hatter as one's fly-by-night tour guide and CGI critters large and small, cuddly and beastly, popping repeatedly and randomly in and out of view. Even before Alice (Mia Wasikowska) hops on, Burton has already begun to pamper his prismatic eye for scale. Presented in some theaters in eye-popping 3D, the film doesn't need the format but the format nonetheless highlights—and makes unmistakable—this great filmmaker's shrewd framing of objects. His perspective-shifting aesthetic is almost cubist: Bodies feel like fragile amalgams of jagged shapes, and the hedges of maze-like gardens, like the Red Queen's arm extending to greet her wafer-thin lover's kiss, appear as if they could cut off one's head.
The film's "Underland" is a triumph—but also a headache—of comic-grotesque visual invention. Most elaborate and impressive is the Red Queen's castle, a cacophony of loud colors and even louder shapes conceived by the bulbous-headed queen as a haven for the glutton for punishment. Animals are her slaves (a pig is her footrest, birds dangle a chandelier from their feet, and monkeys hold candlesticks in the air), but so, it would seem, are the men and women of her court, who pretend to have deformities—rotund bellies, Dumbo ears, and Pinocchio noses—so as to be in her dangerous presence. Their behavior makes sense if you understand it as Burton's lampoon of people's willful allegiance to the most absurd of Victorian mores.
But for all its visual splendor, especially the battle between the Red and White Queen's armies, Alice in Wonderland is sloppily acted. Burton conceives the Mad Hatter's lunacy as being a form of post-traumatic stress in the wake of the Red Queen and her Jabberwock's cruel incineration of Underland, and Depp, resembling a cracked-out Elijah Wood, reflects this suffering with ever-volleying physical movements and alterations in speech, but the idea of the character being damaged by war still feels underimagined—or maybe it's just that the actor's heavy makeup gets too much in the way of his natural gifts. Elsewhere, Anne Hathaway, as the White Queen, moves less like a royal and more like a Price Is Right model perpetually modeling a new Frigidaire. Only Helena Bonham Carter's deliciously and hilariously frightening Red Queen feels like an indubitable success. She hollers, you duck, every syllable striking like an executioner's blade.
Perhaps most damning, Wasikowska doesn't allow her Alice to wear the same complex armature—that freakishly real mix of self-pity and overconfidence—she brought to her character on the first season of HBO's great In Treatment. Alice's confusion about her destiny may feel real, but her awakening is never inspiring—not that the laziness of the performance is entirely this talented actress's fault. Because Burton scarcely even makes superficial parallels between the creatures of Underland and Alice's family and friends, the character's dream life never deeply reflects her real-life anxieties. Less a grappling with her subconscious desires than an elaborate test of her will and goodness and acknowledgement of her destiny, her journey throughout Underland simply constitutes a training mission toward an inevitable, glass ceiling-crashing denouement.
Burton proclaims his magical feminist intention early on via a series of gorgeously framed scenes that significantly depart from what we know of Carroll's world. Suffocated by the rules of her society and her priggish would-be husband's proposal before an intimidating throng of aristocrats, Alice's sojourn to Underland becomes a kind of time out from a world that has corseted her true ambitions. It's an interesting expansion of Carroll's story that would be easy to disregard as a concession to modern political fashion if it weren't so stunningly crafted. Still, Burton doesn't open the story far enough and the film suffers because of it: Had the nature of Alice's father's ambitions been more clearly stated, and had Burton more painstakingly elaborated on Alice and her father's personal relationship, the girl's expedition throughout Underland might have felt more emotionally resonant and less like a ghoulishly sinister sugar rush of gothic freakouts—a densely cluttered affair that becomes too easy to write off as just another NeverEnding Story.