That Alice in Wonderland is a 3D movie necessitates, I suppose, that the fall down the rabbit hole be rendered in 3D, with miscellaneous detritus flying about and occasionally flying towards the front of the screen; but it cannot be said that Burton embraces 3D with anything like artistic enthusiasm. He's a director with a keen eye for design and a distinctive visual style, but the 3D feels like an afterthought in Alice in Wonderland - a tacked-on and unnecessary contrivance. There's plenty enough to look at in Burton's movies without having to see it in simulated 3D. The 3D technology tends to mute colors and darken the picture, and Alice in Wonderland, like most of Burton's films, is plenty dark enough.
This is a particular gloomy elaboration on the Alice in Wonderland tale - one in which Alice, according to a prophecy of Underland (for that is the place's actual name, we are told), will slay the menacing Jabberwock on the frabjous day. Alice would really rather not, but circumstances conspire to force her hand when her friends are captured by the wicked Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), who, as she is wont to do, has decided to separate them from their heads.
Alice spends much of the movie wandering about Underland, hiding from the Red Queen's henchman the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover) and his toothy, frumious Bandersnatch. Alice shrinks and grows and shrinks and grows and interacts with the various oddities who live in Underland, most notably the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), a foppish milliner with horizontal tendrils of flaming red hair, very, very large green eyes and a tendency periodically to lose what little bits of his mind are left. In time, Alice learns that she has been in Underland before, as a small girl, and that the Underlanders have all been waiting for her to return and end the Red Queen's reign of terror and wanton decapitation.
Now, the Red Queen is wicked indeed, with a gigantic noggin that's oddly reminiscent of Bette Davis in Queen Elizabeth - which makes her that much more menacing. Her sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) waits for Alice, but Alice isn't terribly keen on battling the Jabberwock, even though inevitability and the story apparently demand it. And there's the chief problem with Alice in Wonderland: Alice is a bit wan and indecisive, a heroine pushed grudgingly along toward her destiny, but not really feeling it despite the best efforts of the Mad Hatter and others to inspire her. The Red Queen plays croquet with a flamingo and a hedgehog -she hits the hedgehog with the flamingo. How evil does she have to be before Alice finally gives a whit?
As Absolem, the hookah-smoking blue caterpillar, tells her, she's lost her "muchness." She could use some more muchness, to be sure. On the other hand, the Cheshire Cat (voiced with sly, silky slinkiness by Stephen Fry) is fantastic: He's got some of that muchness that Alice lacks; and so do several other more tangible critters who turn up to prod, assist and generally run circles around Alice. This is a pretty grown-up Alice in Wonderland, and this Alice has some growing up to do.
Alice in Wonderland looks great, as can be expected from a Burton movie. It's full of curiouser-and-curiouser sights and many perils, and it whipsaws between visually arresting, candy-colored castles (tinged with menace) and dreary, bizarre, ominous hinterlands. The movie is, in its doleful, baleful, peculiar way, also quite bewitching - until it falls apart in a halfhearted, perfunctory, oddly uninspired action sequence, a battle scene that really offers not much as a story climax and is every bit as uncertain and noncommittal as Alice. It's an ordinary, predictable ending to an offbeat movie that had been bursting with the unexpected.