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TERRY GROSS, host:

On the heels of an acclaimed exhibition of his work at the Museum of Modern Art, Tim Burton has directed a new special effects-laden adaptation of "Alice in Wonderland." In this version, Alice makes her second trip underground at the age of 19.

The film stars Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and as Alice, Mia Wasikowska, who is memorable as a troubled athlete in the first season of the HBO series "In Treatment."

Film critic David Edelstein has this review.

DAVID EDELSTEIN: To enjoy Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland," you'll need to accept that it's not by any stretch Lewis Carroll's "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" or its follow-up, "Through the Looking Glass," but a fancy Hollywood hybrid. Yes, it uses "Alice's" characters and motifs, but the plot is one part C.S. Lewis to one part "The Wizard of Oz". You could call it "C.S. Lewis Carroll's Alice in Narnia with Johnny Depp as the Mad Scarecrow."

Carroll's delicious satire of English logic and manners, inspired by his enthrallment with a little blond girl, has been turned into an action-packed, feminist coming-of-age story. Alice, played by the Australian actress Mia Wasikowska, is a young Victorian woman of 19 facing the marriage proposal of an unattractive prig. She falls down a rabbit hole for the second time, the first time was when she was 6 and arrives in Wonderland or, as the locals correct her, Underland and no one believes she's the same Alice. But if she is that Alice, a number of characters tell her, she has a destiny: to ride into battle on the frabjous day against the homicidally petulant Red Queen and her winged Jabberwock.

If you can get past the Hollywood revisions, "Alice in Wonderland" is rather wonderful or is that underful? Burton indulges in his penchant for disproportion, so that nothing and no one in Underland quite fits least of all our heroine, who becomes very small, then very big, then teensy enough to hide inside the Mad Hatter's hat; then vastly out of scale with the court of the Red Queen, where she's greeted as a visiting giant.

As that queen who's more like the first book's Queen of Hearts Helena Bonham Carter sports a double-sized head atop a normal-sized body, suggesting an enormous, overdressed infant. The Queen's henchman, the Knave of Hearts, is Crispin Glover's noggin set atop a spindly, elongated frame. It's a tad disappointing when Anne Hathaway's beneficent White Queen turns out to have normal proportions, though her pallor is unearthly and her red lips rimmed in ghoulish black.

As anyone can tell you whose endured the lines in New York for the Museum of Modern Art's Burton exhibition, there are few artists who can better mix the circus and the sarcophagus, the Magic Kingdom and the mausoleum. For him, there can be no true beauty without a touch or a ton of decay. Underland is full of dead, twisted trees and giant moldy mushrooms. The movie is in 3-D in many theaters, but Burton doesn't seem interested in immersing you the way James Cameron does in "Avatar." His hedges and topiary create orderly layers of space, and the foreground figures often resemble cardboard cutouts which strikes me as exactly how it should be, given the characters' playing-card origins.

His usual leading man, Johnny Depp, reportedly decided that the mercury poisoning that made many 19th-century hatters so mad would be evoked by his phosphorescent green eyes and Bozo the Clown orange hair, and that his skin tone and accent would shift according to his character's mood. His tea party with the Dormouse and March Hare and Cheshire Cat takes place on what looks like a bombed-out landscape.

(Soundbite of movie, "Alice in Wonderland")

Mr. JOHNNY DEPP (Actor): (as the Mad Hatter) It's you.

Unidentified Actor #1: (As character) Alice not. That Swiss (unintelligible) is the wrong Alice.

Unidentified Actor #2: (As character) You have switched the wrong Alice?

Mr. DEPP: (as the Mad Hatter) Youre absolutely Alice. I'd know you anywhere. I'd know him anywhere.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. DEPP: (as the Mad Hatter) Well, as you can see, we're still having tea and it's (unintelligible) so kind waiting for your return. Youre going to be late you know, naughty.

Ms. MIA WASIKOWSK (Actress): (as Alice) (unintelligible)

Mr. DEPP: (as the Mad Hatter) Yes, yes, of course, but now youre back you see and we need to get on to the frabjous day.

Unidentified Actors: Scrumptious tea time.

Mr. DEPP: (as the Mad Hatter) Youre investigating things that begins with the letter M.

EDELSTEIN: Depp's performance doesn't quite come together, but he brings an infectious zest to everything he does that makes him seem like a summer-stock actor crying, "Let's put on a show." And Bonham-Carter's Queen is a scream, even if it owes quite a bit to Miranda Richardson's bratty Elizabeth I in the BBC sitcom "Blackadder."

The fully computer-generated characters are not especially memorable. That suggests that Burton, for all his graphic genius, responds most fully to flesh-and-blood performers. He made the right call in casting Mia Wasikowska, instead of a swan-necked Keira Knightley type. This Alice isn't the book's enchanting logician. But Wasikowska, as she proved on the HBO show "In Treatment," can seem at one moment over-defended and the next poetically transparent. Burton, bless him, knows you can't computer-generate a soul.

GROSS: David Edelstein is film critic for New York magazine. You can watch scenes from "Alice in Wonderland," including a trippy tea party sequence, on our Web site at freshair.npr.org, where you can also download Podcast of our.

I'm Terry Gross.

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GROSS: On the next FRESH AIR we hear from each of the five directors nominated from an Oscar: Kathryn Bigelow, James Cameron, Lee Daniels, Jason Reitman and Quentin Tarantino.

Join us.

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