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Alice in Wonderland: Feed your head 

Here's the problem with the vast majority of movies based on Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its sequel, Through the Looking-Glass: They're too tame, too hesitant and too conventional to really tap into the more unsettling aspects of an immortal fantasy that provides as much satisfaction for adults as for children.

The most disappointing adaptation is arguably 1951's Alice in Wonderland, the animated Disney version that misinterpreted the tale as merely a merry romp for small tykes. The best remains Jan Svankmajer's 1988 Czech import Alice, which employed stop-motion animation to create a creepy masterpiece. And now, falling down the rabbit hole of good intentions, is Tim Burton's new take on the classic, a visually stimulating rendition that nevertheless comes off as lamentably timid.

Carroll's 7-year-old protagonist has been transformed into a 19-year-old heroine (Mia Wasikowska), who escapes from a dull Victorian-era garden party only to find herself tumbling into the strange world known as "Underland." She comes to learn that this mysterious place is ruled by the wicked Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who has usurped the throne from her saintly sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Convinced that it's all only a dream, Alice stumbles from one incident to the next; her strongest ally is The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), who lost his marbles at the same time the White Queen lost her empire.

Providing unnecessary back story to an established character like the Hatter is the sort of boxed-in thinking that often torpedoes the picture. Scripter Linda Woolverton has some exemplary credits to her name (including Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King), but her talent for classically structured narratives gets in the way here, since Carroll's surreal saga is anything but streamlined. The changes made to the source material are, almost without exception, devoid of true vision or imagination, meaning that the most demented moments -- such as the floating heads in the castle's moat, or the sudden appearances by the Cheshire Cat (still the story's coolest character) -- need to be embraced whenever they sporadically appear.

As Alice, Wasikowska is rather listless, while Depp seems to be on board only as a favor to his friend and frequent collaborator Burton -- in other words, he brings nothing special to the role. The only cast member who truly excels is Bonham Carter, whose performance is outrageous enough to meet the demands of the Red Queen's excesses yet also allows a smidgen of pity to be applied toward the character's resigned awareness of her own deformity. The actress clearly holds the winning hand here, trumping all other players in this rickety house of cards.


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