Same Old Rainbow

Rebekah Hwang/Guardian

How could Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” possibly go wrong? It’s every tripper’s favorite childhood storybook, given the filmic budget of a god, then recreated by the same weirdo cast and director that rounded up cult and critical kudos for “Sweeney Todd” in 2007. But somehow, “Wonderland” is the uglier, misshapen Red Queen to the Burton legacy.

The premise of Lewis Carroll’s novel, if you don’t know by now, is Fear and Loathing in miniatures: Talking flowers, disappearing cats and rabbits in waistcoats, toking caterpillars. With so gleeful a palette, it’s something of a travesty to watch Burton’s remake bury all the twisted charms of Wonderland in a poorly reconstructed “Chronicles of Narnia” plotline.

Thirteen years after Alice’s original journey down the rabbit hole, she’s set to marry a sickly, insufferable lord. Unwilling to accept his hand, she follows the tick of that infamous pocket watch and tumbles once again into the psychedelic depths of Wonderland.

There, Alice (Mia Wasikowska) meets up with all the old characters from her original nursery adventure, each telling her she must slay the Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee) to defeat the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) — or “Big Head,” as she is referred to by the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp). In doing so, Alice would restore order to Wonderland — or “Underland,” according to the Blue Caterpillar (Alan Rickman) — and the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) would be reinstated as monarch.

The pressure is on — but we’re just tripping off the pretty colors. Artistically, of course, “Wonderland” is off the charts. Burton’s take may suffer from plot-inferiority complex, but his distorted world uses all its 21st-century tools with a subtle hand, coiling nicely into the original 1951 aesthetic. Brilliantly illustrated oddities take flight and breathe fresh life into the tale. And while Alice’s constant growth spurts must have been nothing short of a costuming nightmare for the on-set seamstress, each of her outfits is custom-fit to Burton’s deranged dreamworld.

Sadly, the brilliance ends here. The 3D option was a huge asset for “Avatar,” but it only stymies the artwork of this graphics team. Dropping down the rabbit hole is akin to having your retinas seared, junk flying by at light speed, unidentifiable objects blurring in and out of focus.

Wasikowska is unsettling as the dull, soft-spoken Alice. In all fairness, the script does her no favors — it dwarfs her among goliaths Depp and Carter, both of whom are graced with better lines and development. But even Depp fails to do much heavy lifting. His Mad Hatter is a painful hodgepodge of former roles, reminiscent of the Willy Wonka reprise. Depp leaves all the work to his costume — which resembles an acid-seared skittles rainbow — while cavorting around the charred countryside.

Perhaps it’s time for Depp and Burton to seek marriage counseling, before uninspired characters and moribund scripts become a staple in their already arduous relationship. But it’s far too late to save lovechild “Wonderland,” whose only major miracle is Depp’s inhuman ability to score top billing in a film about a young blonde girl’s battle with a queen. You can do better, Helena.

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