The Tim Burton aesthetic has become so institutionalized that it sometimes seems like the alt-culture marketing comes ahead of the filmmaking. The director’s new take on Alice in Wonderland follows the formula of his last few live-action films: Take a familiar, beloved-by-outcasts property, polish it up with the trademark Burton goth cuteness, watch Hot Topic shoppers go wild. It worked for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, it worked for Sweeney Todd, and it mostly works for Alice in Wonderland, which is a little smoothed-over by its Disney overlords but still represents an entirely suitable marriage of material and filmmaker.
The whole thing is very Tim Burton-y, and that’s the problem—Burton adds exactly what you’d expect him to add to the story of Victorian-era misfit Alice (Wasikowska), who falls down a hole while chasing a rabbit in a waistcoat and ends up in the magical world known as Wonderland. Here, Alice is 19 instead of 9, and the world she tumbles into is referred to by its inhabitants as Underland. Burton’s film is more a quasi-sequel than a strict adaptation of Lewis Carroll’s source novels, and he gives an expected darker tinge to the setting, years after Alice first encountered it as a little girl.
Still, the structure is similar, and many of the standard Wonderland characters make their appearances, including Burton favorites Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, made into a more important and sympathetic supporting character, and Helena Bonham Carter as the villainous Red Queen, out to destroy Alice and rule Underland. The White Rabbit, the March Hare, the Cheshire Cat and the Jabberwocky all show up as well. Depp does his increasingly tiresome cartoonish-buffoon bit, but thankfully, despite his top billing, he’s not the actual star, and Wasikowska brings a much-needed sense of grounding and humanity to Alice. She’s eventually overwhelmed by all the CGI (this is by far Burton’s most effects-heavy film), but makes a much better case for the value of this new take on the material than all of Burton’s cosmetic upgrades can.