Andy Bockelman: ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is typical Tim Burton tea party |
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Andy Bockelman: ‘Alice in Wonderland’ is typical Tim Burton tea party

Riddle me this: Why is a raven like a writing desk?

After nearly 150 years, we still don't have a definitive answer to the question posed by Lewis Carroll, and the latest rendition of "Alice in Wonderland" isn't offering any solutions. But that's not to say that it doesn't have its own direction.

Life choices already have been decided for 19-year-old Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska). Her newly widowed mother (Lindsay Duncan) has arranged for her to marry into a well-off family, and Alice's stuffy husband-to-be (Leo Bill) is eagerly awaiting an acceptance of his proposal during a garden party preemptively celebrating their engagement.

Alice isn't nearly ready for all this pressure. She's more interested in chasing after an unusual animal that nobody else seems to see. In her pursuit, she plunges headlong down a rabbit hole into a swirling torrent of odds and ends, only to find something even more peculiar once her feet hit the ground.

She enters Underland, a fantasy world where she meets not only the waistcoat-wearing white rabbit Nivens McTwisp (voice of Michael Sheen), who lured her there but other eccentric characters, such as the haughty, hookah-smoking blue caterpillar Absolem (Alan Rickman) and pudgy, squabbling twins Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas).

All these individuals have been waiting for Alice, but apparently, she's the wrong Alice, as the one they've been expecting is meant to fulfill a prophecy and free the land from the tyranny of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter). But Alice knows she can't be the one meant for such an endeavor.

Can she?

Australian actress Wasikowska exudes a quiet dignity as an older version of Alice than we're used to, with her teenage characterization explained as a return after many years to a world of her own imagination she had believed to be a dream recurring since the age of 6. Also, her younger self mistook "Underland" for "Wonderland," in case you were wondering.

Whatever you call it, the residents of this universe are fully fleshed out and in most cases given proper names, like the spastic March Hare (Paul Whitehouse), now known as Thackery Earwicket; the argumentative Dormouse, Mallymkun (Barbara Windsor); faithful bloodhound Bayard Hamar (Timothy Spall); and toothy, evaporating trickster Chessur the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry).

The humans of this tale are even more vivid, such as Crispin Glover, creepy as ever as the Knave of Hearts, Ilosovic Stayne, the devoted servant to the Red Queen, Iracebeth of Crims, whom Bonham Carter plays bombastically, looking riotously encephalitic with a computer-enhanced cranium. Anne Hathaway is just as enjoyable as her kinder sister, the White Queen, Mirana of Marmoreal, who's positively ghostly in her voice and appearance.

Despite all the craziness around him, Johnny Depp still outdoes everyone as master milliner Tarrant Hightopp, best known as the Mad Hatter, an orange-haired rosy-cheeked, clownish sort who constantly teeters on the precipice of being absolutely insane. Be sure to check his thermochromatic eyes, eyelids and fingernails to be sure he's not about to go off the deep end.

If you think the Hatter's personality is but one step away from the likes of Edward Scissorhands, Willy Wonka or Sweeney Todd, then you've been paying close attention to director Tim Burton's filmography. At first glance, the pair's latest team-up looks like an ideal project, as Burton blends the oft-filmed stories of "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" and the sequel "Through the Looking Glass" to create a completely viable world drawing much inspiration from noted Carroll illustrators John Tenniel and Arthur Rackham.

Especially significant is the use of Tenniel's sketches of the dragonesque Jabberwocky (Christopher Lee), the Red Queen's horrifying pet, whom Alice is destined to slay with the Vorpal Sword on the Frabjuous Day. But even the design of this monster isn't enough to make one cry, "Callooh! Callay!" as Burton replaces the whimsical nonsense of Carroll's stories with violent battle scenes and an overall tone of dread likely to put off everyone other than the kind of crowd that found "The Nightmare Before Christmas" to be too warm and cuddly.

Here's a hint: When the Red Queen screams, "Off with his head!" don't show the results.

But the upside of this alteration to the story is that it allows Alice to become an independent and altogether stronger character, finding her voice in the real world of Victorian England in the process.

The newest interpretation of "Alice in Wonderland" can be about as dizzying as the Disneyland teacup ride inspired by the 1951 animated version. Even so, at its best moments, it captivates as well as "The Chronicles of Narnia" films or other such fantasies.

But the low points, such as watching the Mad Hatter's frantic dancing, are just embarrassing.

Forget the Bandersnatch and the Jubjub Bird — Beware the Futterwack!

Now playing at the West Theater.

‘Alice in Wonderland’

Rating: 2.5 out of 4 stars

Length: 109 minutes

Starring: Mia Wasikowska, Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway.

Now playing at the West Theater.