Not enough wonder in ‘Wonderland’

Johnny Depp's yellow contacts are the high end of the Mad Hatter's madness. Here’s how it breaks down: Lewis Carrol’s “Alice in Wonderland” is fraught with insanity. Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” contains almost none.

Without all that illogic and craziness, Wonderland has no soul. The characters lose their intrigue, their menace, their magic – and their entertainment value. Burton’s “Wonderland” contains only overbearing plot and Johnny Depp, in his wholly sane and diminished portrayal of the Mad Hatter, otherwise known here as The Character Burton Wishes The Story Was About.

First, the plot. Carroll’s story subsists, as we’ve mentioned, on insanity – and therefore Alice is tossed from situation to situation as she tools around Wonderland, basically getting into trouble before being led or chased to somewhere new.

Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton instead thrust upon Wonderland an extremely recycled story of good ruler/bad ruler, in which Alice (Mia Wasikowski) is, for reasons never even mentioned, Wonderland’s prophesied warrior/champion/Aragorn/Luke Skywalker.

All the standard inhabitants of Wonderland have been searching for Alice since she first arrived in Wonderland when she was young – no one else, the film suggests, actually lives there. Now 19 and poised to be married off to an irritating British lord, Alice’s need for escape takes her down the hole in pursuit of the White Rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) and back to Wonderland, where she’s immediately recruited to fulfill said prophecy. It seems the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has taken power, and she’s mean. The Wonderlandians would much rather the White Queen (Ann Hathaway) was their ruler. Alice gets to fight a dragon to enact this political change.

None of the ins and outs of this prophecy, Alice’s previous visit, her assumed specialness, or the antecedents of this apparent rebellion are ever discussed. Okay, fine, it’s a children’s movie – whatever. But the end result is not a whimsical albeit dark reimagining of an insane and vibrant world; it’s instead just a far-too-long stop-by-stop tour of an extremely boring Wonderland, in which Alice meets flat character after flat character, who each direct her to her next destination.

Each scene and character is lifted from the original work, and with its weirdo storyline it’s somewhat apparent that Burton’s “Wonderland” is meant to function as a sequel to Carroll and Disney’s 1951 cartoon adaptation. But it’s a sequel that the film itself concedes is a nearly exact replica of Alice’s earlier trip and story (except, you know, the dragon-slaying sword-finding bits). Where Carroll has Alice dealing with crazy, unique and interesting characters, all of Burton and Woolington’s characters are stripped clean of distinguishing traits outside of those rendered in CGI. They are plot devices and nothing else, pushing us toward the supposedly thrilling foregone conclusion.

As overbearing as the plot is Johnny Depp as the orange-haired, white-faced Mad Hatter. Most notably, and most disappointingly, he’s about as far from mad as Depp has gotten in years – especially under Burton’s control. And he has almost as much screen time as Alice, though there seems to be no discernable story reason for this Depp-glut.

The Hatter serves mostly as Alice’s biggest guide. He’s also, for some reason, an understated Alice love interest, freedom fighter and backstory relayer.

All the characters are painfully tame (the Cheshire Cat [voiced by Stephen Fry] has the sole function of appearing in scenes to fill them out), but none moreso than Depp. He appears in much of the plot but never adds anything to the story whatsoever. Lift him from the movie and it would truck along just fine without him, with his plot-device roles fulfilled by any number of other supporting characters. He’s an empty suit, hat and wig in every conceivable way.

There’s no aspect of Burton’s “Wonderland” that gives us the impression the story needed retelling here. We get nothing new from the Burton perspective, or his cast. The script is a pitiful clone of other, much better quest movies. Even the CGI look of Wonderland itself isn’t as lush or interesting or weird as, say, “Avatar,” or even many video games, despite the fact that Wonderland should offer no end of ideas for demented, fantastic things at which to look.

At every turn, with every expectation, “Wonderland” falls well short. The movie is unnecessary, disappointing, and underwhelming – another new adaptation Burton just didn’t need to do.