Sunday, March 07, 2010

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland

Tim Burton, you are dead to me.

Yes, I enjoyed Big Fish and was slightly amused by Sweeney Todd (though I liked the stage version with Angela Lansbury and George Hearn far more) but I haven't cared for much else of what you've done since Ed Wood back in 1994. Your adaptations (Sleepy Hollow) and remakes (Planet of the Apes) display a tired repetitiveness in themes and casting. This is most evident to anyone unfortunate enough to sit through Alice in Wonderland.

Alice in Wonderland attempts to be a sequel to Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Having forgotten her trips to Wonderland as a seven (and seven and a half) year old, the twenty year old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) takes yet another plunges down the rabbit hole to escape an droll life. Suddenly we jump from Jane Austen to Lewis Carroll as Alice falls into Wonderland.

This Wonderland isn't so wondrous. It's a burned out, confused wasteland that looks like Pandora after the Na'vi got their tree knocked down. It's populated with some familiar characters acting very uncharacteristically. Most prominent among these are the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter), and Stayne, the Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover). Wait, what? The Knave of Hearts? Yeah, he was accused of stealing some tarts in the Queen of Hearts's kangaroo court but he's elevated in Linda Woolverton's screenplay to the role of the Queen of Hearts's lover and scourge of Wonderland.

Wait... you mean that this Tim Burton film has Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter, and Crispin Glover in it? And Danny Elfman did the music? Wow, we're really going off script for a Tim Burton film!

If the elevation of the Knave of Hearts is strange, it's no worse than the Mad Hatter's expanded role as some kind of schizophrenic freedom fighter. Like Johnny Depp's turn as Willy Wonka in Charlie & the Chocolate Factory where he vacillated between mischief-maker and potential child molester, Mad Hatter bounces between loon and patriot. When channeling the latter persona, Depp adopts a Scottish brogue at top volume. Watching him go off on nutty Scottish rants is only slightly less better than watching him breakdance.

Meanwhile, the Queen of Hearts has a big head and there are a lot of jokes made about this. That seems to be the extent of her character. Oh, and shouting "Off with his head." This gets tiresome after about the first time.

The Queen of Hearts's sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), comes off as distant and manipulative, using everyone around her to regain the throne--a position which she doesn't seem to deserve. She should be the moral center of the film but, instead, she's a phony who seems to be living quite well when the film would lead us to believe she's in exile.

And then there's Alice... Through the beginning of her trip to Wonderland there's doubt about her being "the right Alice." Alice doubts that she's actually in Wonderland and constantly discusses waking up. Combined, these two things keep Alice at a distance from the film. She's not so much the audience's foil as she is an interloper. The plot has a tired prophecy that needs to be fulfilled and that no one can see that Alice is the person to do it leaves the film feeling as disjointed as mixing the chess and card metaphors of Carroll's two Alice books.

As much as the film fails from a story perspective, it also doesn't work on a technical level. The film is dark. I don't mean thematically, I mean that it's actually difficult to see. It's as if no one thought to adjust the brightness despite audiences wearing 3D glasses which cut down on the amount of light that can get to a viewer's eye. Even the scenes in daylight in the "real world" are dark; forget about the murky, confusing Wonderland scenes. Also, the dialogue is difficult to hear. I thought I was the only one having issues with discerning when characters were speaking English and when they were speaking nonsense until the people behind me bemoaned the need for subtitles throughout most of the film.

I might be able to chalk up the murky visuals and inaudible dialogue to a poor viewing experience but this doesn't change how thrown-together the story feels or how unsympathetic any of the characters, especially our protagonist, come across in yet another failed Tim Burton experiment.

In the end, the film comes down to the slaying of the Jabberwocky, replaying the end of several other Disney films such as Sleeping Beauty and Dragonslayer. So much of the movie feels so "Disney-fied" that I expected Depp to show up during the film's final scene as Captain Jack Sparrow. It would have made as much (non)sense as the rest of this muddled mess of a movie.

Do yourself a favor and buy/rent Jan Svankmajer's Alice instead.


Unknown said...

Excellent review Mike. I've actually been extremely hesitant about seeing this film since I thought the trailer looked really spotty. I'm for eye candy but it just looked way too heavy on CGI-sheen and the paint-by-numbers Tim Burton look that is played out. Does he really need those Hot Topic merchandise checks that bad?

Mike White said...

Thanks! I didn't think anyone actually read this site.

Richard Doyle said...

I read it too. I like it quite a lot.

I liked "Sleepy Hollow" more than you did, but really I agree that Burton's been way off his game since "Ed Wood".

Mary said...

I like this wonderland. But is it as perfect as the Wonderland in our dream? Maybe still not.

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