Rated PG for scary situations & images, comic violence): After a zig-zag trail from "Pee-wee's Big Adventure" to "Bettle Juice," "Batman," "Edward Scissorhands," "A Nightmare Before Christmas" and other wildly varied flicks - but all with a dark comic slant - this version of the 140-year-old story can't be expected to become just a remake from director Tim Burton.
And it isn't.
Little Alice is seen at the start in soft warm tone, recalling her dream about following a rabbit down a hole into the strange world of fantasy, tongue-in-cheek, outlandish situations and lessons in life among such things as living red and black Playing Cards. Next thing you know, she's a grown teenager (Mia Wasikowska), being introduced into fashionable society and about to be married to a foppish lord. Next thing you know, she flees the gathering in all its pastel opulence and once again falls down the rabbit hole - Danny Elfman's mickey-mousing music scrambling after her - until she arrives in a room with locked doors, a vial on a table that says, "Drink Me," a key to fit the tiniest door, and on into Underland (as it's called for some reason here. Writer Linda Wolverton never bothers to explain that or many other puzzling alterations to follow.)
There's barely a plotline to follow except that Alice (in one size or another) is expected to help the White Queen (a really bleached Anne Hathaway) against the Red Queen (a snarly huge-headed Helena Bonham-Carter) and then fight and destroy the monstrous Jabberwocky - which she does, but not before becoming embroiled in a mix of incidents, some (Mad Tea Party, visit with Cheshire Cat, Caterpillar) some originated by Ms. Wolverton & Burton on to a great battle between the Red & White armies, culminating with the demise of the Jabberwocky. One other thing: although Alice insists she's in a dream, it turns out not so; she climbs back out of the hole and, big surprise, takes on a new, real adventure at sea. Prep for a follow-up?
What can be said about that? The costumes, set designs, CGIs & overall look of the film is fabulous - eye candy from start to finish. Luminous mushrooms fill the forest, card army is three-dimensional in shape (film version I saw was 2-D, but that didn't seem to dampen the visual pleasure one bit), a pond filled with floating grey heads over which Alice tip-toes, Dariuz Wanda's remarkable camera work picking it all up & delicately lighting it while filmy mists come & go. And all the time, Elfman's confident music jabbing, jumping, swinging, leaping, soothing to suit each situation.
Despite the tone of the film - the zany antics, the crazy situations, the outlandish moments - Burton keeps the characters under tight control. Some, like Johnny Depp at the mad Mad Hatter, are remarkably laid back, allowing his grotesque make-up & fright wigs to carry the flamboyant characterizations, while the actions of others, like Hathaway & Bonham-Carter, seem to be pure rote, talented actresses mechanically going about by the numbers. Young, exceptional Wasilkowska, the only natural person in Underland, carries herself consistently with marvelous aplomb.
Special effects truly are spectacular, and if they were seen on film for the first time they would astonish; unfortunately, since Hollywood has fallen in love with special effects in lieu of good scripting, roaring flying critters & strangely anthropomorphic creatures no longer astound - a pity.Ultimately, with all its dazzle & spritz, the 129-minute extravaganza is fit for momentary pleasure, but can't last much beyond that. (Grade: B-)