Tim Burton is a bottomless pit of imagination, with all the depth and darkness that implies. Sometimes his imagination runs away from him, at the expense of whatever story he's telling (hello, Willy Wonka).
But give Burton a story without much shape or form — like Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland books — and this dream merchant's fractured vision finds clarity. He has something to hang his funhouse hang-ups upon. Gathering most of Carroll's episodic fantasies, Burton also gives the tale purpose, making Alice Kingsley's tumble down a rabbit hole into a young woman's rite of passage.
Alice in Wonderland in Burton's hands is a wondrous sight, growing curiouser and curiouser at every turn. The first jolt is seeing Alice (Mia Wasikowska) at 19 rather than the moppet of other adaptations. She's chafing at Victorian traditions of what a woman should be, including a fop's marriage proposal she's expected to accept.
This is the same Alice who ventured to Wonderland as a child, although it's now a recurring nightmare not to be believed. The pressure of a surprise engagement party sends her racing off behind a strange rabbit tapping his watch. She can't remember yet she can't resist. Soon, she's in a freefall down Burton's rabbit hole, a gantlet of odd artifacts and branches clutched in rhythm with Danny Elfman's euphoric musical score.
All the elements of Carroll's classic await Alice at the bottom: her growth and shrinking spurts, the enigmatic, hookah-smoking caterpillar Absalom (voice of Alan Rickman), twin dimwits Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas times two), the Cheshire Cat (silky voiced Stephen Fry), and a Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) demanding heads to be cut off.
Most famously, the Mad Hatter, played by Johnny Depp with the psychotic precision that Burton always pulls from him. Looking like a distant cousin of Pennywise, the killer clown in Stephen King's It, his Mad Hatter is as sad as he is silly. A flashback to a fiery Jabberwocky attack that deposed the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) offers a reason why the Hatter is mad, and the core of Burton's mature twist on the tale.
Alice has returned for a reason, to fulfill the prophecies of slaying the Jabberwocky and returning the White Queen to the throne. Yet even the Mad Hatter isn't certain the March Hare retrieved the right Alice. "You were much muchier," he says with typical insanity. "You've lost your muchness."
Indeed, much of the muchness in Alice in Wonderland is how Alice retrieves that quality. We witness a literary icon being reborn as a stronger person. By the time Alice returns to the real world, she'll know how to handle it. She'll be the right Alice.
With such a dramatic anchor for his whims, Burton pulls out every stop, tossing everything but the kitchen sink at his 3-D cameras. At times it's just showing off but mostly Burton concocts delicious eye candy: floating death masks used as stepping stones across the Red Queen's moat, a croquet match with flamingos for mallets and hedgehogs for balls, Alice's thrilling showdown with Jabberwocky. Not to mention the galumphing Bandersnatch and the Hatter's vigorous futterwacken dance.
Alice in Wonderland succeeds at what most literary adaptations don't even attempt; moving the text forward into something richer, something the author might have imagined with two centuries' more perspective. Toss in the fact that it's the most fun at the movies in 2010, so far, and the muchness is complete.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog, Reeling in the Years, at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.