Traveling down the rabbit hole

“Beware the Jabberwock my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird, and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!”

These are lines from the nonsense poem “Jabberwocky” by Lewis Carroll, author of “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” and “Through the Looking Glass.”

In the film “Alice in Wonderland,” director Tim Burton has taken elements of all three of  Carroll’s works and attempted to remove the nonsense, perhaps only enough to make a coherent story, while retaining some of the lunacy that made the books and previous films so special.

The story revolves around Alice, played by Mia Wasikowska, and her return to Wonderland. She is older now, and has been asked to marry a pompous Lord who most likely has irritable bowel syndrome.

Uncertain of what to say to his proposal, she runs, flees and once again goes down a rabbit hole.

Wonderland has changed in her absence; the Red Queen and her champion the Jabberwocky now rule with an iron fist. Alice learns from returning characters like the Mad Hatter and Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum that it has been foretold that she will defeat the Jabberwocky and save Wonderland.

A re–imagined nonsense fairy tale seems like the perfect project for Tim Burton to make an instant classic, but while it is successful and entertaining, I did not feel completely satisfied leaving the theatre and I was unsure why at first.

The visuals are fantastic, as should be expected. Anyone who saw the screenshots or trailers  should have been at the very least intrigued by the film. The scenery is beautiful and imaginative; it looks like a trippy baroque pop–up book.

I was pleasantly surprised by the performances as well. On occasion, a fantasy film like this can be held back by its child actors, as was the case in “The Golden Compass.”  In “Alice in Wonderland” however, the young Wasikowska is poised and sincere.

Even the inevitable appearances by Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter (his seventh appearance in a Burton film) and Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen (her sixth) are well done, and this film helps to get rid of the stench the trio left behind with “Charlie and Chocolate Factory.”

The use of 3–D also slightly concerns me. It can be so effective when used correctly, but it can also be terribly gimmicky at times.

There are moments that are wonderful, like when a rocking-horsefly hangs beautifully over those seated in front of you in the theatre, but there are also annoying contrivances — like when a character throws a cup and it goes flying by your head — that detract from the sophistication of the technology.

The performances are solid, the visuals are magnificent (with rare exception) and the story is creative, yet something is holding the film back and it is difficult to pinpoint.

Ultimately, because the story is no longer presented as a nonsense poem but rather  as a fantasy film, it must create tension, and because it is based in a nonsense world it will be nearly impossible to accomplish that.

A red queen with a big head and a tiny body who constantly shouts, “Off with her head!” is hardly a villain; nor is a Jabberwocky that looks frail and quaint in the film’s climax.

“Alice in Wonderland” is a beautiful technical demonstration, but the story is still grounded in nonsense and therefore the suspense is ruined.  While that doesn’t ruin the cinematic experience, it does prevent “Alice in Wonderland” from being great.