The adventures of a young girl, Alice (Mia Wasikowska), who falls into a magical world full of strange characters and darkness behind every corner.

2.5
An unsatisfying trip down the rabbit-hole.

The fervidly imaginative Tim Burton would appear to be a director well suited to delivering an update of the Lewis Carroll classic.

First published as long ago as 1865, Alice in Wonderland has held its appeal for many reasons including its free-spirited refusal to anchor its story in moral uplift and convention. Its exploration of whimsy, magic, wit, adventure, cruelty ('off with their heads!") and the irrational, was infused with the anarchic spirit of surrealism several decades before the art movement of that name was a twinkle in Andre Breton’s eye.

It’s odd then, to find that Burton’s Alice (Australian Mia Wasikowska) is set up here as a vogue-ish, teenage, neo-feminist role model. No, make that feminist warrior – quite literally, in one of the climactic scenes, in which our heroine dons a suit of armour to fight the ferocious Jaberwock, imported from Carroll’s poem. What is this, Joan of Arc? St Georgina slaying the dragon? Carroll would have a pink fit.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with rewriting a classic. Neither in having a message – it’s just that this one slams against the side of the head of like a reverberating frying pan. Burton’s one of the last people you’d imagine wanting to turn the story into a crude girl-power tale. Yet even though his trademark visual sensibility is sprayed over every frame (like much of his work, the film is not so much directed as designed to within an inch of its life), it looks as though the Disney suits are the true auteurs here. The result is an unsatisfying blend of the eccentrically personal and the savagely conventional.

Wasikowski is certainly admirable in the demanding lead role, her pale features interesting rather than distractingly beautiful (though she is surely too Hollywood-scrawny for a middle class English girl of the Victorian era). A framing story has her Alice at a garden party where she is expected to submit to her parent’s plans and accept the pre-arranged marriage proposal of a foppish young Lord.

Seeing the white rabbit gives her the opportunity to follow him down the hole and into Wonderland, which looks like a sister planet to Avatar’s Pandora: multi-coloured forestry, wild beasts tearing through the undergrowth, flying creatures overhead, and my, could that be a blue-ish dress that Alice is wearing? Obviously the film was in production at the same time as Cameron’s epic, but you can’t help wondering.

The expected array of characters include Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter, his hair the shade of decomposing carrot juice, and the mad Queen (Helena Bonham Carter channelling the spirit of Miranda Richardson’s Queenie from Blackadder). The smoking caterpillar is voiced by Alan Rickman, the Cheshire Cat by Stephen Fry, and Tweedledum and Tweedledee (imported from Through the Looking Glass) by Little Britain’s David Walliams.

It’s many years since I read the book but I’m sure this mob didn’t end up banding together to fight Bonham Carter’s rule of evil, aided by Anne Hathaway’s White (ie. good) Queen, who seems to have wandered in by mistake from Narnia or The Wizard of Oz or something. The fact the script includes a third-act explanation for the deviations from the original doesn’t mean they add anything of worth.

I spent at least half of the film regretting the decision to see it in 3D. Where the poster is bright and colourful, those dark specs cast everything in a muted pall. The 3D effects are often distracting, with objects flying towards the screen at regular intervals. Every time you see the March Hare approaching, duck. But even in 2D the film will suffer from an over-riding problem: despite its fabulous cast and often wonderful production design, it just isn’t much fun.