The pair of surreal children's fantasies written by Charles "Lewis Carroll" Dodgson, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, have been adapted for cinema and television as often as any other work of English literature I can name outside of Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. Yet, despite a tradition of adaptation stretching back to 1903 (and presumably there have been stage Alices as well; but given the problems which seem to consistently plague cinematic adaptations, I don't want to even imagine the horror that must be a 19th Century theatrical version), I don't think most of us would disagree with the idea that there has not yet been a definitive Alice movie. I would imagine the 1951 adaptation produced by Walt Disney Animation Studios is probably the most widely-seen, but even that film's ardent defenders (in whose numbers I count myself) can't claim as a virtue that it hews especially close to Carroll, or that it leaves no room for further exploration of the text.

So we get a new Alice every so often, and the latest (simply titled, like most film versions, Alice in Wonderland) has come to us from director Tim Burton, writer Linda Woolverton and- well, look at that! It's Disney again, looking to secure their grip on another iconic British children's character, having already devoured A.A. Milne's Winnie-the-Pooh. No worries, though: even if a "definitive Alice" could exist, Burton and Woolverton aren't interested in making it. This is much more of a "revisionist Alice", using Carroll's texts as a touchstone rather than a playbook. Conceptually, this is the right idea; the very reason that none of the umpteen films based on the books has ever taken hold properly is that the book is so resolutely un-cinematic; it's visual as hell, all right, but in a way that cannot really be depicted in a conventional narrative film. We're talking about the ur-texts for the "dream logic" story, after all, and the only filmmakers who've ever had much success with that kind of movie aren't generally the type that would be interested in making a kid-friendly picture.

In the new version, which is set-up as a sequel to the books, 19-year-old Alice Kingsleigh (Mia Wasikowska) has had a recurring dream for 13 years, in which she is trapped in a strange land of talking animals, flowers, and playing cards, but that's not what concerns her. At the moment, she is much more upset at being forced into stultifying Victorian femininity by her stuffy mother (Lindsay Duncan), who is trying to arrange a marriage between Alice and a positively awful young twit (Leo Bill) whose family has taken over the primary interest in the Asian trading company created by Alice's late father. The trapped girl can't find any way out of her predicament other than to panic, and run after white rabbit in a waistcoat who has been stalking her all throughout a garden party full of unbearable, fussy people, and before you know it, she's plopped into a hole in the ground and come out in an impossible fantasy land of talking animals, flowers &c.

Here's where most every version of the story becomes an episodic travelogue (Alice meets a mad creature, and is terrorised, and then she leaves), but the new film crafts a proper narrative about the usurped throne of Underland (the "real" name of the country that 6-year-old Alice rendered as "Wonderland"), held now by the bulbous-headed Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her spindly attendant Stayne, the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover). The good people of Underland hope that Alice will be their champion, to restore the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to her rightful place; for she has already been here, and triumphed against the Red Queen before, right? Or maybe not - certainly Alice, who assumes her dream has just kicked into hyperdrive, doesn't seem to think of herself as a champion.

If there was one adjective I could pick to describe this new Alice in Wonderland, it would be "dispirited". It's dispiriting, too, but that's incidental. The worst thing about this movie is how badly it feels like nobody involved really knew why they were there, or really wanted to be: starting with Tim Burton and trickling down to nearly every single member of the cast. Despite the expected presence of traditionally Burtonian warped visuals, everything about this film is flat and perfunctory and not at all wondrous. Let's start with the production design, by Robert Stromberg, a visual effects supervisor/designer who has only one prior production design credit: a certain film called Avatar. That's not an accident, for plainly, Disney wants Alice in Wonderland to be their very own "Avatar for wee folk", from the heavy emphasis on 3-D in the ad campaign on down. Perhaps Stromberg was just tapped out after completing that massive project, and perhaps he suffers for not having James Cameron standing over his shoulder; but Alice doesn't really look like much. Some of the CGI characters that mostly populate the almost exclusively CGI environment look good enough (I'm a particular fan of the Cheshire Cat), but the whole thing is busy without a point, full of Gothic touches mostly just for the hell of it, and honestly, it's almost as much ugly as it is fantastic. At any rate, my advice would be to see it in 2-D, not 3-D (sorry, Disney); the immersion of the extra dimension does no service to the hectic visuals whatsoever.

Mostly, it has the tang of somebody trying to parody what a Tim Burton Alice would look like. And frankly, that's pretty much what I suspect the movie was; the somebody in question being Burton himself, who has been suffering a great deal in the past ten years from the pressure to make "Tim Burton movies", rather than the movies he'd necessarily like to make (witness his hideous Charlie and the Chocolate Factory from 2005; this is basically the same film). It seemed like he might have been back on track, visually at least, with Sweeney Todd in 2007, but then, that was a bloody movie for adults, not a corporate tentpole family picture.

And yet, at the same time, this Alice is far darker than I can imagine Disney was very happy with; like so many recent reconsiderations of classic material, the filmmakers have decided that "grim" is a sufficient stand-in for any deeper artistic concerns (though, to be fair, the unnecessary darkness of the story leads to one of the few truly amazing visuals in the whole movie, when Alice uses dismembered heads as stepping-stones across a moat). All this does is make the movie vaguely but indefinably unpleasant; not exactly nasty, but certainly not very fun. At any rate, Burton seems tremendously disengaged from the material, which ends up looking very antiseptic and anonymous, despite being taken 100% from his traditional aesthetic, as informed by the books' classic John Tenniel illustrations.

For the most part, the cast is afflicted with the same ennui as the director, I assume because most of them are trapped by the technology used to create their characters; Burton's favorite collaborator, Johnny Depp, makes for a perplexingly unconvincing Mad Hatter - rather more like the Eccentric Hatter Who Occasionally Has a Scottish Accent - while the overstuffed cast of voice actors playing the many CGI critters that Alice encounters (Stephen Fry, Michael Sheen, Timothy Spall and Alan Rickman are the most prominent) make very little impression at all.; Hathaway looks positively miserable in off-kilter makeup. Wasikowska at least makes for a credibly confused Alice, but the role offers her little to do but react, and the only performer who seems to be really biting into her part is Bonham Carter, nailing the petty, childish diva tantrums of her character and breathing the only life into the movie that it ever really enjoys.

Mostly, it seems like it should work: the design is overwhelming, the make-up and costumes are wickedly ambitious, everyone involved is famous; and yet it's just kind of sad. British author Terry Pratchett once referred to the books as "creepy and horribly unfunny in a nasty, plonking, Victorian way", and that's kind of how the movie feels, minus the Victorian part (it's a resolutely modern, post-feminst sort of thing, but in a very clinical, marketing-driven way). Nasty and plonking, the kind of movie that feels like it had to be made, rather than should have been made. It bears the look of fake imagination, and nothing is more depressing than that.