(CNN) -- Tim Burton goes through the looking glass: This is what CGI was invented for, surely?
Over the last decade, digital effects have developed so fast, the most outlandish visual trickery can be integrated seamlessly with live action. Actors -- living, breathing human beings -- can coexist with the kind of fantastical environment that once was the realm of the animator, and with results that seem, if not perfectly natural, then perfectly supernatural.
You can observe the same phenomenon in "Avatar." But where the technocrat James Cameron gives us fantasy science, a utopia you can practically reach out and touch, the dreamer Tim Burton shows us a head-trip to a place -- "Underland" -- where nothing seems like what it is. (It seems reasonable at the end of "Avatar" when -- spoiler! -- Jake trades in his old life for this brave new world of the Na'vi, but how much more sensible of Alice to see how crazy it would be to stay in Wonderland.)
Burton's Wonderland is something else, as the hippies used to say. The biggest stumbling block for previous film adaptations of Lewis Carroll's Victorian fancies (and there have been plenty) is the dream logic that runs through the books, which throw up numerous memorable scenes but precious little in the way of narrative spine.
You wouldn't normally associate Burton with rock-solid linear storytelling either, but he and screenwriter Linda Woolverton ("The Lion King" and "Mulan") have banged Carroll's nonsense literature into narrative shape, producing an emancipatory allegory in which Alice (19-year-old Mia Wasikowska) leads a rebellion against the tyrannical Red Queen (Helena Bonham-Carter providing an overgrown head perched upon a diminutive CGI body).
Borrowing bits and pieces from "Through the Looking Glass" and inventing freely, this isn't your Cliffs Notes "Alice in Wonderland," not by a longshot. It's more like a dream of Alice, jumbled up and reassembled. (I suspect a little Dorothy Gale has blown in there, too.) Be wary of preconceptions; that's one of the keys to this puzzle.
Another is the idea that Alice is a growing girl -- literally mushrooming -- a conceit from the books that the filmmakers run with. A prologue at a Victorian stately home finds her fending off an aristocratic suitor who proposes marriage. He's everything a young lady of the period should be looking for -- which is to say, rich and respectable -- but already Ms. Alice is inclined to independence.
Even so, after her tumble down the rabbit hole she's not at all sure she measures up to the Alice everyone else seems to be expecting -- even the dormouse is unimpressed. She doesn't have so much of her "muchness," worries a gap-toothed, scarlet-haired, white-faced Mad Hatter -- a dandy and sympathetically distracted Johnny Depp -- but this is a quality she grows into precisely by departing from the script.
Shot in 3-D -- a mixed blessing in my book -- Burton is able to have some fun with the curious and curiouser spatial and perspectival reversals that delighted Carroll.
And if on one level it's a pity to make sense of nonsense, this "Alice" is replete with blissfully silly idiosyncrasies, derangements and disturbances, like the warm pig the Red Queen uses for a footstool, or British comedian Matt Lucas pulling double-duty as pudgy twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee, or the heart-shaped eyepatch that adorns the villainous knave, Stayne (Crispin Glover).
Everywhere you look you're sure to find something else to wonder at and smile -- a smile as wide and lingering as Stephen Fry's fat Cheshire grin.
"Alice in Wonderland" is rated PG and runs 109 minutes. For Entertainment Weekly's review, click here.