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Bland 'Alice' leaves viewer wondering 'where's the whimsy?'

It seems like a match made in big-screen heaven: Tim Burton, the movies' master fantasist; Johnny Depp, Burton's most inspired, out-there collaborator; and Lewis Carroll's fantastical "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland."

Heigh, ho. Down the rabbit hole we go. Let the surrealism begin!

But wait. Something is not quite right with Burton’s version of “Alice in Wonderland.”

It is, as one would expect from the maker of such inventive visual feasts as “Batman,” “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” and “Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street,” a dazzler to behold. Whether it’s Depp in an orange fright wig and translucent pale makeup, wide-eyed with manic dementia as the Mad Hatter, or Helena Bonham Carter with bulbous head and impossibly crimson regal coif as the Red Queen, or the sharp-toothed, grinning Cheshire cat, a tubby tabby vanishing in swirly clouds of 3-D smoke, “Alice” looks positively frabjous. But also more than a little clotted and creepy.

As reimagined by Burton and screenwriter Linda Woolverton (“The Lion King”), Wonderland is now Underland, as in underground. The place looks as though it’s been bruised by nuclear winter. Oppressive gray skies. Scarily gnarly vegetation. Muddy-looking landscapes. More Sleepy Hollow than a sunny fantasyland. Not a happy place.

This Alice, played by newcomer Mia Wasikowska, is not a happy camper. The 19-year-old’s sleep is haunted by a recurring dream of hookah-smoking caterpillars, agitated watch-carrying rabbits and dim twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee. She has no waking recollection of the time 13 years ago when she drank a shrinking potion and entered Wonderland.

These days, her waking hours are made miserable by thoughts of her impending arranged marriage to an upper-class British twit.

Woolverton has conceived her as a rebellious Victorian protofeminist, resisting her mother’s insistence that she wear a corset and loathing the notion that society demands she make a proper marriage with a moneyed nitwit.

What Alice is most of all is dull. Wasikowska is pretty in a blond, sylphlike sort of way, but her performance is as colorless as her pale makeup. Vaguely petulant and mildly bewildered by her character’s encounters with the peculiar denizens of Wonder-, sorry, Underland, Wasikowska seems curiously disengaged. The idea that she could credibly don a suit of armor and, sword in hand, go forth to slay the fearsome, fire-breathing Jabberwock doesn’t fly.

Fleeing her engagement party, Alice follows an oddly familiar bunny wearing a waistcoat through a garden and plunges down, down, down a seemingly endless rabbit hole in a scene where the picture’s 3-D special effects kick in for the first time. (Watch out for those flailing arms.)

About that 3-D. It’s generally so unobtrusive, it barely registers. Makes you wonder why they bothered.

At the bottom of the hole, Alice’s adventures follow the expected trajectory. The “drink me, eat me,” shink-me, enlarge-me, give-my-costumer-fits-with-size-changes, and tea party parts of Carroll’s tale are all here. But there’s something missing. What “Alice” suffers from most of all is a serious whimsy deficiency. Depp capers and prances as the Hatter, Bonham Carter snaps and snarls “off with his/her/their head(s)” as the Red Queen, and Anne Hathaway swishes and swans about as the White Queen, but there is a dutiful quality to their antics.

The seemingly effortless, engaging strangeness that animates the best Burton-Depp collaborations (“Edward Scissorhands,” “Ed Wood”) is missing here. Everyone is trying very hard, and the effort this time around is all too evident.

Alice in Wonderland

* * *

Director: Tim Burton

Cast: Johnny Depp, Mia Wasikowska, Helena Bonham Carter, Anne Hathaway and Crispin Glover

Running time: 1:49

Rating: PG; fantasy action and violence, scary images

Where: In wide release

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