Maybe "Avatar" really is a game-changer.
To anyone who's seen James Cameron's astoundingly detailed vision, Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" - also a mix of live action and computer animation in 3-D - will look a little pale (and not just because Burton employs his typical Gothic Ringling Brothers style). All these furry CGI creatures, ancient stone castles and bombastic Danny Elfman scores were getting tiresome even before "Avatar" arrived; now they're beginning to look like legacy technology.
"Alice" certainly starts promisingly enough: In what looks like 1800s England, a headstrong teenage Alice (Mia Wasikowska) faces a dreary future as the decorative wife of a young lord. In the midst of his proposal, she bolts into the woods and falls down the proverbial rabbit hole, but here's what's curious: None of this strikes her as familiar.
Somehow, Alice has forgotten her first trip to Wonderland (the correct name is Underland, we're told) and so her old friends are not convinced she's the girl destined to slay the Jabberwocky, conquer the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter, enjoying her computer-enlarged cranium), and reinstate the White Queen (Anne Hathaway, very white).
What's curiouser is why Alice has forgotten, and why she must complete this task; Linda Woolverton's script never quite explains. Lewis Carroll's original "Alice" books, all dream-state chaos, never bothered with such logical details, but here they nag: We're on a quest riddled with questions.
The film's brightest spot is Johnny Depp as the Mad Hatter, whose garish makeup and wild green contact lenses somehow heighten his range of genuine emotions: joy, sorrow, tenderness. In a film that seems to have lost its head, his is firmly fixed.