Does Alice redeem Tim Burton for Planet of the Apes?

Boy, it's nice to finally see a real Tim Burton movie again. It seems like he's been phoning in his dark and twisted visuals for a while. Sleepy Hollow, Sweeney Todd and Corpse Bride seem like Tim Burton by the numbers. Yeah, they're dark and surreal, but they don't feel fresh. Big Fish was quite good in a profoundly different sense, but not as a "Tim Burton" movie. Let's not even talk about Charlie and the Chocolate Factory or Planet of the Apes.

Burton's Alice in Wonderland is a sequel to the Lewis Carroll stories. It uses familiar elements from both Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, but in a different sequence and for different reasons. It's not a retelling of either book. This time Alice (Mia Wasikowska) falls down the rabbit hole as a grownup and doesn't remember that she's been there before. The Wonderland creatures and characters have to remind her.

The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has turned Wonderland into a bit of a dystopian wasteland, so they need Alice to save the day again. Syfy's own miniseries Alice may have had that idea first, but Burton doesn't go in a future sci-fi direction. It's still a Wonderland you'll recognize, only dark and twisted the way he likes it.

You can tell the gnarly forest, the rotating moon and the red castle architecture come from the same man who drew Nightmare Before Christmas and Beetlejuice. The Bandersnatch is an awesome creature. The Queen's card soldiers look oddly flat while still existing in 3-D space. Those are the kind of surreal, twisted visuals we want from Tim Burton.

It's intense the way Large Marge and the sand monster were: scary enough to provoke kids but not bloody or inappropriately traumatic. They poke that Bandersnatch's eye out. I guess they were already cutting off heads in the Carroll story, but going for the eyes seems more vicious. There's also talk of seduction. I guess that's a family topic these days, but it's cool that the story is mature enough to go there without being overt.

The Mad Hatter is actually the least interesting character in the film. He's just got a sort of generic weirdness, as opposed to the specific traits Johnny Depp has given the likes of Captain Jack and Ed Wood. I hate to pick on acting, because it's so personal, but I think Johnny Depp can take it. The real surprise is Crispin Glover with a suave, elegant Knave of Hearts.

This Tim Burton film doesn't need a Johnny Depp performance to lay its foundation, though. It's got enough awesome visuals to carry it through. In 3-D, Burton gets to play with the proportional differences of size as Alice shrinks and grows. The 3-D itself is no Avatar. In fact, it looks more like a live-action Viewmaster. But Tim Burton movies are not reality, so it kind of works that his 3-D is artificial.

The plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but that's not really what you're watching Alice in Wonderland for. It's as loose and surreal as Pee Wee's Big Adventure and Batman. If you're an old-school Tim Burton fan and have felt let down by his recent work, as we have, Alice in Wonderland is a step back toward his former glory.

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