This much-hyped new Alice in Wonderland is animated by two troublesome conflicts, one in the mind of its heroine, the other in the collective decision-making of its creators. The question which haunts Alice, as she takes her tumble down the hole into one of the most famous dream-sequences in literature, is "Am I mad?" The question that inevitably concerns the studio in charge of the film, Disney, is "Will it sell?", and it's that cautious pragmatism that seems to have put a halter on Tim Burton's runaway spirit of invention. The director keeps on threatening to break the shackles of his paymasters and deliver something wild, freewheeling, elusive – a film that grasps the topsy-turvy of Lewis Carroll's original story and graces it with his distinctive visual bravura. But the reality falls short: there just isn't enough wonder in this Alice.
It is not a calamity. The screenwriter, Linda Woolverton, has made a bold decision in advancing Alice's age by a few years. A prologue explains how the pubescent Alice was troubled by the recurring dream of being lost in a mysterious land, an hallucinatory place so vivid that she asks her father, bluntly, "Am I bonkers?" He takes an indulgent view of the possibility: "All the best people are." Cut to some years later, and Alice (Mia Wasikowska) is a 19-year-old girl on the cusp of womanhood and, ominously, wedlock. Following the Victorian habit for matchmaking, a manipulative aunt intends to marry her off to her son, a carrot-topped twit with a title. "Do you know what I fear?" says the aunt. "The decline of the aristocracy?" comes Alice's pert reply. At a garden party full of toffs in cream linen, Alice is put on the spot by the twit and answers his proposal as any sensible girl should: she runs a mile.
And then she falls down a hole. This is where Woolverton's screenplay becomes potentially interesting. There have been plenty of theories as to what Alice's experience in "Underland" might mean – her girlish ear first mistook it for "Wonderland", it seems – but it's surely plausible that it represents a virginal 19-year-old's terror of matrimony. Allow for dream's illogic to infect her thinking, and that twit's orange hair, bow lips and high forehead are grotesquely replicated in the bulbous-bonced person of The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), a monster of petulant tyranny almost certainly descended from Miranda Richardson's "Queenie" in Blackadder. Alice refuses to be cowed by the Queen, indicating a psychological resistance to the will of her "elders and betters". Then again, perhaps she's just a bit scared of red hair.
The thread of meaning is soon lost inside the labyrinth of nonsense that Alice roams: this is really Alice in Wanderland, ticking off encounters with Carroll's celebrated figments as though it were a historical pageant. You can play spot-the-voice on the March Hare (Paul Whitehouse), Tweedledee and Tweedledum (Matt Lucas), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Absolem the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), the White Rabbit (Michael Sheen), the Dormouse (Barbara Windsor), a full menu of old-fashioned British whimsy served up in the very modern settings of 3D and digimated imagery. It is this technological arsenal that puts the spanner in the narrative works. Our post-Avatar cinema is now under pressure to deliver bigger and better thrills, but I do wonder if audiences would actually prefer a movie that values story above spectacle. Burton, once a master of CGI, has gradually become its servant, or at least has allowed the studio to. The madcap ringmaster of Gothic phantasmagoria (Batman, Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands) does not exert his individual stamp on a book one might have thought he was born to film. This production feels much more in hock to Disney than it does to Lewis Carroll.
Still, there are fine touches. The collapses of perspective are elegantly handled, and the dreamlike switches of the story are a gift to film editing. (How Carroll would have enjoyed this particular art). As Alice, Mia Wasikowska has an engagingly direct stare and a willowy grace of movement. She is pleasing without being ingratiating. Johnny Depp doesn't overdo it as the Mad Hatter, though he suggests that enough mercury has seeped from that hatband into his head: perhaps that is what makes his eyes greener and his hair redder, too. I'm not sure what wavelength Depp is on here – the sudden plunges into a Scots accent are inexplicable – but he has a couple of moments in repose when the Hatter's expression turns so wistful it should break your heart.
The film's last third, which concerns the slaying of the Jabberwocky, disappoints on two levels: first, it fails to generate any narrative excitement, and second, it seems to be copying from other family blockbusters of recent vintage, eg The Lord of the Rings and Chronicles of Narnia, with their climactic battles between good and evil. Even the revisionist screenplay, with its gesture towards womanly independence, feels a bit smug by the end. It is one thing for Alice to tick off her maiden aunt Imogen (Frances de la Tour, as a sort of Victorian Miss Jones) for believing that "a prince" might come to rescue her; it is another thing to say, "You need to talk to someone about these delusions." From someone who's spent the last few hours in the company of Mad Hatters, Red Queens and Cheshire Cats, that's a bit rich! It's as though the film itself forgets its championing of the imagination and decides to dole out some pious Hollywood therapy-speak. You have to wonder.