It might be time for Johnny Depp and Tim Burton to start thinking about seeing other people. Alice in Wonderland, their seventh film together, is so thoroughly soul-deadening and laborious that the prospect of an eighth collaboration feels like the sword of Damocles.
Based on Lewis Carroll’s books Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, this latest big-screen version of the seminal classics finds a 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) heading down the rabbit hole once again, but with no memory of her prior visit; those looking for an origin story will have to settle for the 1951 animated version. Once in Wonderland—or, as it is called by the locals, Underland—Alice must defeat the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and return the benevolent White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to her rightful throne.
Perhaps because the plot can basically fit on the inside of a matchbook, Burton decided that an over-reliance on bells and whistles was necessary. He bathes Alice in Wonderland in so much distracting 3-D computer animation and ethereal landscapes that both James Cameron and Peter Jackson would recoil in disgust. Consider Alice the unwanted spawn of Avatar and The Lovely Bones. There are giant flying birds, growling, dog-like creatures and even something called the Jabberwocky, a monster right out of The Lord of the Rings. (It’s even voiced by Saruman himself, Christopher Lee.) Those hoping to be transported to a new world will have to settle for a hodgepodge of old ones. To wit: Alice rides on the back of a furry beast—in a style reminiscent of The Neverending Story—not once, not twice, but thrice.
Alice in Wonderland has all of Burton’s hallmarks—the silhouetted and broken tree branches, the haunting Danny Elfman score, the pasty heroine (Wasikowska has an inside track on playing the lead in The Claire Danes Story)—but the film comes off like something directed by a novice who spent one too many afternoons in the Tim Burton exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art. Not one moment during the 108-minute film feels authentic.
Neither does Depp’s central performance as the Mad Hatter. While Wasikowska is fine enough, her Alice is written as a straight woman; she’s required to do nothing more than react to the green-screen creations surrounding her. Depp is tasked with the heavy lifting, but, festooned in an orange fright wig and some very uncomfortable-looking contact lenses, he can’t even be bothered to keep his accent straight (it vacillates between an effete lisp and an angry Scottish brogue).
When he was donning black eyeliner and doing an elaborate Keith Richards impression in Pirates of the Caribbean, you could sense the fun Depp was having while nailing a tricky performance. In Alice in Wonderland, though, he acts like even being on set was a chore. It wouldn’t have been a surprise to see him break the fourth wall, take the blue pill and return home to Paris. Frankly, with how much the film drags, you’ll probably wish he had.
Christopher Rosen is a New York City-based entertainment writer.