Tim Burton's “Alice in Wonderland,” the second Disney rendition of the old Lewis Carroll classic, paints a dazzling Wonderland 13 years after Alice first discovers it, though with the bulk of its wonders bled to hues of dun and ash. This is Wonderland plundered by the Queen of Hearts, played by a hydrocephalic Helena Bonham Carter, capricious and cruel, a practitioner of decapitations so brazen the alabaster heads of her victims bob around her moat like apples. She is a delight, as are the ephemeral Cheshire Cat, the Alan Rickman-voiced blue caterpillar, the moonfaced Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and Johnny Depp's kaleidoscopic Mad Hatter. Blighted landscape or no, the characterization still shines.
So why isn't this movie more fun? The story arc, for one, has been rerouted from Lewis Carroll's original discursive birdwalk through a triptych of nonsense and fever dreaming to something more suited for a PlayStation 3 adaptation. Almost from the moment that Alice (played as a brave, iconoclastic dreamer by the Aussie Mia Wasikowska) flees her surprise betrothal party and plunges down the now-proverbial rabbit hole, she's told that if she is indeed the Alice, she's fated to slay the Jabberwock, the subject of one of Carroll's doggerel detours. From then forward, we're fairly sure that's what's going to happen, and the journey becomes the thing. The journey, sad to say, is not particularly joyful.
The script could have stood with more time to dawdle, to engage in punning and rhyming and the dreamlike silliness that Carroll has owned since “Through the Looking-Glass.” Still, if you're a fan of Burton, there's a lot of Burton-ness here to admire. Costumer Colleen Atwood, of both “Sleepy Hollow” and “Sweeney Todd,” is back with her rich and varied Victorian finest, on down to an array of shifting garb for the ever-shrinking, ever-expanding Alice. Danny Elfman's gothic brass orchestra is such a staple of the Burton mood that it's hard to imagine the latter without the former. Depp, the pro, with a childlike glee leavening the force of his performance, manages to own his scenes without overpowering the young Wasikowska, even when she's small enough to ride on his shoulder. Bonham Carter, Burton's wife, taps into a villainy she savors like an everlasting gobstopper.
So again we wonder why this movie isn't more emotionally vibrant. Perhaps some blame must fall on the medium, and that pesky 3-D that studios insist on these days. Burton shot the movie in 2-D only to add in that third D in post-production, and the texture during the live-action scenes is reminiscent of a View-Master wheel. In the largely digital Wonderland the effect lives more comfortably, if only heightening the sensation that you should have a video game controller in your hands as you watch. By the time the White Queen's soldiers clash with those of the Red Queen, and Alice is going all Joan of Arc on the slithy Jabberwock, you have to wonder why the high art of nonsense has been forsaken for common rot.