Friday, March 19, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

Directed by Tim Burton. Adapted from Lewis Carroll by Linda Woolverton. Released 2010. Rated PG.

I am amazed that Alice in Wonderland can still pull in a crowd. It is a drug-induced story by a man who may or may not have had a pedophiliac relationship with the title character. Yet, Lewis Carroll’s (or Charles Dodgson’s, if you will) unfathomable imagination and lyrical nonsense have intrigued readers and audiences for over a hundred years. However, now we are in an age of story-telling that has minimized lyricism and emphasized visuals. We are left with the nightmarish characters of an imagination that transfers poorly to realism. Who better than Tim Burton, right? Well, hold on to your popcorn, he actually did a decent job. Despite his reputation for surrealism, Burton delivers the safest image of Wonderland yet. It may not be the most canonical, but he’s done Disney proud. At least he’s done Disney a new money trophy.

Oh, Tim Burton. At first, I forgot that he was the director. London seemed so sterile. It all came crashing back to me when Alice started her tumble down the rabbit hole. The next blazing paced sequence dropped her into a dark world of prophecy and violence, complete with grotesque, classical faerie-tale maiming. But then it was over. Tim Burton put a reign on his imagination and never beat you in the head with his stylistic choices again, even in other dangerous moments.

But watch this movie in 2-D. Of course the trend is fun to be a part of, but 3-D actually detracts from this movie. Sure, the Caterpillar’s hooka smoke looks cool, and sure the Cheshire Cat has some novel perspective, but Burton’s framing is wasted if you spend the entire movie hoping for the depth of Avatar. Most every shot is brilliantly composed from left to right. I would take off my glasses and revel in the color schemes and placements. Then I would put the glasses back on and gaze at the emphasized depth of Helena Bonham Carter’s forehead. Not worth it.

In fact, color choice was a trend that I couldn't get over. In the beginning, Alice is in London and grudgingly attends a well-to-do. Everyone at the party is wearing white with dull, earthy tones like brown, tan, or occasional subdued gold. Alice, on the other hand, is wearing sky blue. Obviously, Alice has differing values from the other guests, except for her sister, who also wears blue even though she seems to be at home with everyone else. Nothing extraordinary except that Burton’s choices are always so blatant that he makes it part of some caricature that only he seems to fully comprehend.

Most are color themes are easy to grasp. The Red, violent, and passionate queen is the villain and the White, serene, and liberal queen is the side of justice. What I couldn't figure out was the connection between the White party in London and the White kingdom in Wonderland.

For being such a blockbuster, Alice has a surprisingly unmotivated plot. This fits the world of Wonderland, but sits unevenly with the epic atmosphere that Tim Burton attempts to create. Alice is thrown from situation to situation, all very exciting, but she barely lifts a finger in her own self interest. Things just happen to Alice, who allows it because she knows it’s "her dream" and nothing more.

She struggles each step of the way with her own integrity. Her mother wants her to be this, the rabbit wants her to be that. In response, the Hatter, Johnny Depp, says that Alice has lost her "muchness." "Why is it that you are always too small or too big?" These concepts culminate well with the climax, but it leaves the journey rather tasteless.

How serious should this be taken? Does Alice care? Do we? Add to this the necessary element of every character being more than half-crazy, and it seems like random elements simply lead to a fated outcome rather than one that Alice actually reasoned out. Which is both contradictory with, and discussed in, the plot.

Johnny Depp may have been a good choice for a Mad Hatter, but he was more distracting than entertaining since Linda Woolverton, the screen writer, had to spend so much time on him make him into a sympathetic character. I never wanted to buy it for a minute. The make-up artists blacked a gap in his teeth that never convinced, and the whistle he tried to affect for it only sounded like an inconsistent lisp. The tirades of Scottish brogue and stifled whisper never got a chuckle out of me, or the audience I was sitting with.

Now, Mia Wasikowska, Alice, had some interesting parts. We all saw that she ends up with a sword from the trailers, right? Well, she knew how to use it. Better than Depp knew how to use his. Most of her exultant moments surround the ending when she exemplified boldness and endeavor. When she was simply a bemused face, tripping through Wonderland she was typically boring, but I was more than satisfied to see her get her ire up. Backing up Wasikowska's performance of Alice was Mairi Ella Challen as the 6 year old Alice. She was so charming that I spend a lot of time wishing the movie was about her than the 19 year old Alice.

The rest of the cast did their jobs well. Helena Bonham Carter and Anne Hathaway absolutely sealed their parts, though the characters were not equal. Even the bizarrely enhanced toadies of the Red Queen felt entirely at home, though Crispin Glover's CG enhancements as Stayne were jerky at times. My personal favorites were the slimy servants of the Red Queen: the deep, bass voiced frogs and slithery fish.

I’m not a big Wonderland fan, and I left not quite satisfied in the entire experience, but very content with the conclusion. I'd say rent not buy, and if you really want the theater experience, watch the 2-D version.


  1. You write really good reviews! I'm glad you shared your blog with me. :-)

  2. You're far easier on this film than I am, but that's because I wanted something more hectic--more like the books. Have you read them? Despite your feelings about Carroll, his books are a playground for people that are entertained the ways that I am. Every scene is confusion because there's always some play on words, and nothing is meant to make much sense. Disney's animated version does a better job of illustrating Carroll's books, but it's too hectic, too crazy. Every scene in the animated version is a mix between the two books and it feels rushed. Personally, I was hoping for an essential remake from Burton, who I typically enjoy, and maybe sticking closer to the books. Instead, I felt like I got a story "based on" the books, not taken from the books; they took the characters and some silly, irrelevant poem from the stories and blew them up into something that was, in the end, nothing like Carroll's books. I have a hard time accepting any story that merely takes the characters from a story I like and placing them in an "original" (read: unnatural) environment. By the end of the film I felt like I'd spent 2 hours watching poorly developed Alice in Wonderland characters run around in Narnia, without Narnia's charm and without Alice's eccentricity. The result was a feeling that I'd been cheated. I saw the film in 2D and wished I saw it in 3D because maybe the caterpillar's smoke would have provided me SOME enjoyment. Still, I could at least appreciate Burton's always-beautiful world he created for the characters to run around in. But it wasn't enough to alleviate the poor aftertaste of a Mad Hatter that was more angry-mad than crazy-mad, Anne Hathaway's irritatingly flamboyant hand movements, and the obligatory talking dog. 4.5/10, without 3D. Too harsh?

  3. Well - I enjoyed it immensley. I went hoping to be tansported but afraid it would be, like all other Alice productions, nauseating - too surreal. I was raised on the books. True, this movie was only based on the books. But, it was pretty true to the flavor. The books were nonsense, gut also a parody of the times Carroll lived in. This movie was also nonsense and also a parody. The obvious one was women being more than they actually could in the 19th century. (I'd just seen several movies from the 50s trying to tout "the new woman" and failing miserably - "the girl" talked a good game, but still fell down when she ran and screamed and did no one any good at all. So, this Alice did a much better job, I was pleased to see. There are too many women who just float along like Alice and don't try to be the best - the best teacher, executive, Mom, student or whatever their duty is. (Alice not knowing who she was was very prevalent in the books.) This, of course, ran into the parody of 19th century English culture at large. There was also the play on Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots. (The Hatter being Mary's champion.) I did not understand, though, why the White Queen was also grotesque - her potion for Alice was something more from the Red Queen's court (and point of view). I did not enjoy the heads in the moat - that was too groty and a throwback to "What Dreams May Come" and puts the movie off for younger audiences. But, if you don't bury them, the moat's as good a place as any for a queen who lops them off willy nilly. Sometimes the characters mumbled so I lost dialog. But, all in all, I did very much enjoy getting lost in that other world. K