As I walked out of the screening of Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland, which opens Friday (3/5/10), I thought of something a mentor of mine used to preach, which was that you can't really criticize a work for what it doesn't do, only for what it does.
My negative feelings about Burton's film started early, when I realized that Burton was only drawing on Lewis Carroll's famous fantasies for inspiration - he wasn't doing a film adaptation. Which is disappointing: If there's a modern filmmaker with the visual imagination to bring something new to Carroll's stories, it's Burton (or Terry Gilliam).
But Burton isn't adapting Carroll's stories. Instead, he's appropriating Carroll's characters and premise, then telling a different story completely. He and screenwriter Linda Woolverton have taken the classic story and turned it into a modern action-fantasy film -- minus the humor of Carroll, or the absurdity or the heart.
That's often been Burton's problem: an unwillingness to sacrifice style for story. Script is frequently his shortcoming; he seems ever-ready to let the pace lag or the plot fizzle in order to sandwich in a moment that dazzles the eye, without engaging the brain.
So it is with this version of Alice in Wonderland, which is the kind of fairy tale Michael Bay or Roland Emmerich might make. It's a movie trapped in a morass of moments that are either meant to stun or to demonstrate how cute this all is.
Or, rather, cutesy. That's not the same as witty, though Burton mistakes them for each other, particularly in the scenes with Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter. A one-off in the book, the Hatter becomes a major player in this film, with Depp letting his computer-enhanced eyes, his orange fright wig and his on/off Scottish brogue define the role. He's meant to be the soulful scamp, the unpredictable comic relief who distracts (and teaches) Alice how to come to terms with her destiny (yes, she's a lot like Frodo in this story).