By Ann Hornaday
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 5, 2010; C01
Among the most fruitful collaborations in Hollywood in recent decades must be that between director Tim Burton and Johnny Depp, working together for the seventh time in "Alice in Wonderland." When Burton cast Depp in the 1990 film "Edward Scissorhands," he saved the young actor -- most likely unwittingly -- from an ignominious fate as just another piece of come-hither eye candy.
Best known as the super-cute star of the teen-friendly TV cop drama "21 Jump Street," Depp possessed unseen reserves of versatility and daring beneath his doe-like good looks. As the title character of Burton's "Edward Scissorhands," Depp delivered an astonishing performance as a tortured misfit in a film that helped bring Gothic seriousness to teenage angst. ("Twilight" fans bear reminding that their beloved Edward Cullen owes a debt to Depp's alluring pale male in "Edward Scissorhands.")
Since "Scissorhands," Depp has repeatedly worked with some of the most provocative writers and directors, not just in filmdom but the culture at large, including Hunter S. Thompson and Terry Gilliam. But the auteur he's returned to most often is Burton, whose gnarled aesthetic and love of the dark margins of life have seemed to dovetail so perfectly with Depp's own subversive impulses and intuitive sympathy with eccentrics and weirdos. Not that those dovetails have always been salutary: "Sleepy Hollow" was an expertly crafted but essentially empty exercise, and Depp's Willy Wonka in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" oozed not just perversity but an unnerving mean-spiritedness.
Indeed, at first glance, Depp's Mad Hatter in "Alice in Wonderland" looks suspiciously like another Wonka, with his shocking carrot-top wig, sickly purple makeup and green goggle-eyes, which look vacant and alarmingly wild at the same time. When Alice meets the Hatter, at the familiar tea party with the Dormouse and the March Hare, it's not a pretty picture. (According to the film's press notes, Depp and Burton agreed that the Mad Hatter is suffering from mercury poisoning, which actually afflicted hatmakers in Victorian England.)
But Depp's performance in "Alice in Wonderland" turns out to be one of the most subtle and magnanimous in recent years. To understand why, just close your eyes and listen. Because although he's still known for preternaturally graceful cheekbones and melting chocolate-drop eyes, Depp happens to possess one of the movies' most expressive speaking voices, an instrument that the 46-year-old actor seems increasingly attentive to as he ages. To hear Depp sonorously intone lines from Lewis Carroll's "Jabberwocky" (" 'Twas brillig, and the slithy toves/Did gyre and gimble in the wabe") is to appreciate an actor who, unlike so many of his contemporaries, cares as much about how he sounds as how he looks.
Depp famously bases his performances on other people, whether it's Anna Wintour in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" or Keith Richards in "Pirates of the Caribbean." In "Alice in Wonderland," the references aren't exactly clear, although I'd suggest the sublime 1930s and 1940s British character actor Eric Blore, whose trilling lisp vies with a deep Scottish brogue in Depp's ever-changing repertoire of dialects and accents.
But more than the makeup and costumes, or his own alternately manic and pathetic take on Carroll's Hatter, Depp's leading performance in "Alice in Wonderland" is notable precisely because it isn't leading in the conventional sense. Although the Mad Hatter is admittedly the most important male role, the film is dominated by the breakout performance of Mia Wasikowska as Alice, here portrayed as a 19-year-old woman engaged in a mythic quest worthy of Joseph Campbell. Carrying herself with a ballerina's composure, pale to the point of translucence, Wasikowska makes for a newly mature, self-possessed Alice, who in Burton's telling returns to the Wonderland of her youthful dreams to best the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and slay the dreaded Jabberwocky on behalf of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway).
Like the Scarecrow to Judy Garland's Dorothy, Depp's Hatter acts as chief confidant and aide-de-camp for Alice as she makes her arduous journey home. But by the time "Alice in Wonderland" reaches its climactic battle royal, with Alice decked out in armor reminiscent of Joan of Arc, it's clear that Burton and Depp intend to cede heroic territory most often reserved for the boys.
After a career spent making movies that celebrate the powerless and marginalized, it shouldn't come as a shock that Burton would choose to make a feminist movie, but "Alice in Wonderland" still feels like a surprising, if gratifying, departure. As for Depp, his choices at mid-career reflect the generosity, willingness to take risks and technical flexibility that have become his hallmark -- rather than the matinee-idol looks some might have predicted. How appropriate, 20 years on, that Depp should be found using his voice in the service of allowing a promising young actress to find hers.
Alice in Wonderland
(109 minutes, at area theaters) is rated PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and a smoking caterpillar.