This past year, Tim Burton comes off a career-high with the simultaneous release of “Alice in Wonderland” and the opening of a collection from his personal oeuvre at the New York Museum of Modern Art.  Is this the Year of Tim Burton? Many die-hard fans would like to think so, but before we get all gushy, let’s examine the work.

It has all the makings of a Tim Burton classic. Johnny Depp stars, Danny Elfman scores, and Chris Lebenzon edits, but “Alice in Wonderland” won’t change cinema. On the surface, Lewis Carroll’s 19th century novel fits perfectly with some of Tim Burton’s larger themes of fantasy vs. reality and loss of innocence. And, of course, it lends a great deal of freedom to a visual master like Burton.

Interestingly, the writers present the remake as a sort of quasi-sequel. In the film, Alice is 19 years old.  By nature, Alice is a dreamer, and she doesn’t look too deeply into recurring dreams of adventures in a strange wonderland. Instead, she focuses on more pressing, real problems. Her family plots to marry her off to a boring and unworldly bachelor.

These problems threaten to snuff out her youth. Alice swears she sees the white rabbit and she begins her adventure by following him down the shaft of a rabbit hole. In Burton’s vision, I wonder if the appearance of the white rabbit isn’t the creation of a desperate dreamer whose mind is being taken over by …life. Although we’re invited to believe Alice has never visited Wonderland, there’s something familiar about these events.

Part of the fun stems from the filmmakers’ acknowledgement that the majority of the audience already knows Carroll’s story before they walk into the theater. They’ve taken a familiar story and put a fresh spin on it. The first hour of the film is a wonder. Every trick of the eye and surprising voice talent moves the viewer soaring through Wonderland. But sadly, the film doesn’t continue the momentum.

The second half of the film sags under the weight of its updated storyline. Fans will be disappointed when they realize Burton’s Wonderland resembles Middle Earth more than it does the 1951 Disney classic. Burton’s films have always relied on visual strength and less on literary prowess.  Ironically, in a film about the conflicting forces of fantasy and reality, Burton’s visual strength is trumped by a defined storyline that leaves little wriggle room for creative impulses.

For Burton, “Wonderland” is an aesthetic departure on a few planes. First, he used color to great dramatic effect. By desaturating the color of Alice’s insipid Victorian reality, he is able to contrast the vivid color of Wonderland, Alice’s fantasy.  Burton has already proven himself to be a master of shades of blacks and grays and heavy-handed primary colors (think “Edward Scissorhands”). Remember, this is a man who insisted that “Ed Wood” be shot in black-and-white.

Second, Wonderland is a world created almost entirely using CG effects. Burton dabbled in the use of this technique in “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” (2005), another remake. But here, Burton is limited only by what his imagination can put on the screen. Watching the film, I was reminded how disappointing it was to see such a visual storyteller flail in what is quickly becoming a computer-driven medium. Burton does more to stimulate my imagination with paper and pen than he does with all of the effects of “Alice.”

Kudos to Rejendra Roy, 37, chief curator of film at the New York Museum of Modern Art. Roy unveiled the museum’s Tim Burton exhibit to smashing success. In March, the New York Times reported that 450,000 people had visited the exhibit since it opened in November.

Exhibition pieces range in medium, from 2-D paintings, to drawings, and sculpture. Burton’s importance in film is finally being recognized as terms like “Burtonesque” are thrown attached to works that looks particularly dark or deranged. But the exhibit represents a nod for the creative genius of Tim Burton the man, not just the filmmaker.

I was only five years old when my jaw dropped onto the sticky floor of my second church: the movie house. Up until that point, my early childhood memories were fairly typical: pain and ecstasy.  I remember every stubbed toe and scraped knee.

But my earliest memory of joy came during a matinee showing of Tim Burton’s “Batman” (’89). To a five-year-old kid, it was the Sistine Chapel, the touch of life. One could argue that “Batman” didn’t change cinema either, but it sure did change that five-year-old boy.

– Jonathan Michels