Friday, March 5, 2010

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland Review

We all know the tale of Alice in Wonderland. A little girl goes down a rabbit hole and comes out in a fantastical pastel world where animals talk, cats appear like smoke, the Red Queen is fond of taking heads and above all else, madness reigns supreme. This story has been animated, twisted, put to song by Carol Channing and now, Tim Burtonized. Though I am a fan of Nightmare Before Christmas and all things Tim, it wasn't his telling of this story that had me excited. Just the chance of seeing the charmingly surrealistic world of wonderland made real with the latest technology and leaping into our laps via the mystical powers of Disney 3D had me eagerly waiting from day 1. What could go wrong?

Alice has been having nightmares of the sleeping variety, and not to be confused with those conjured at the thought of marriage with the constipated looking young man of her family's choosing. Luckily escape is just a rabbit hole away, so down she goes, unaware that this should all be eerily familiar. Alice enthusiasts will delight to the familiar as our heroine partakes in her first growing tea cake and shrinking potion...the Bandersnatch..the Red Queen's croqet game..etc etc. These moments seem as mere formality as they come and go like the wind. Introduction to most of Wonderland's morose faces fly past in much the same manor and with little fan fare. Alice has already met them, and those who have done their reading can identify each player, so it seems Burton dispenses with any exorbitant movie magic in favor of a loveless and somewhat drab but swiftly moving story. Slight pauses with the ethereal Cheshire Cat and one irate little mouse are wedged between the bulk of the tale told with a schizophrenic Hatter Depp and the large headed queen. So much attention is given to the pair, the film may have been better served by exploring their journey from happier times to cataclysm so that we may relish in the triumph of good and the lost desperation of mindless, selfish evil. Instead, we must follow a befuddled Alice as she begrudgingly agrees to help her “new” fanciful friends and moans about it in most every scene.

It seems the film makers couldn’t decide who Alice in Wonderland was for. Had they went with a children’s tale, Alice would be full of bright colors, hysterical moments, wild tangents and more then a few AWWW inducing images. With a darker telling, more true to Tim Burton’s style and seeking an older audience, all you’d need do is take the original theme and amp up the creepy already present until you are a bit uncomfortable sitting before the Hatter, Cat and Queen. Alice in Wonderland seems to split the difference, wildly diverging from child brain scarring imagery to moments so ridiculously kid-targeted, had they happened at the beginning of the movie, you may have walked out (and trust me when I say, you’ll know this moment when you see it. Build up your gag reflex in advance.) Even Jar Jar would blush. So, you’ve got all the original characters people know and love, acting much as they should but playing against a landscape raked by the tyranny of the Red Queen. Basically, it’s a post traumatic Wonderland…and that’s not so wonderful. It’s like taking the Toy Story gang and dropping them into the scorched earth of Mad Max’s universe (which admittedly is awesome, but you get the idea.) Where’s the fun?! Where’s the pursuit, even? Alice seems able to dance between two warring kingdoms with nary an obstacle in 5 minutes flat. Never has the phrase “off with her head” been any less menacing.

I’m indifferent about the acting performances of Alice, as I’m 100% sure those involved were doing exactly what Tim Burton wanted. Johnny Depp’s Hatter swings between a foppish lispy tone and heavy, angry Scottish growl from one moment to the next, enhancing the notion that he’s truly been driven mad…as if we needed more proof. We were actually struggling to understand him on more than one occasion. Helena Bonham Carter is fully believable as the Red Queen with the plus-sized noggin and has moments that might make you chuckle, but it is a one note performance that doesn’t show any depth until the very last moments of the film. Mia Wasikowska (Mike Kakowski?) doesn’t seem very flustered when standing before the creatures of her nightmares. She also doesn’t seem happy, angry, frustrated or upset. She just sort of stands there looking paler than Robert Smith on a Saturday night and behaving (as the film would mention repeatedly) very un-Alice like. I’ve also got to take time to mention Anne Hathaway who flitters about, strapped into a dress erasing any semblance of her womanhood and with makeup spackled to her pretty face in such a manor as to make her eerily resemble Lisa Marie. So…we’ve got the current girlfriend as the Red Queen and a mirror image of Burton’s ex as the White Queen and they are at war. Hmm. Creepy. You’ll also see Crispin Glover fight to contain himself in an awkward, gumby like CGI body alongside the voices of Alan Rickman as the Blue Caterpillar and Christopher Lee as the Jabberwocky, both which may as well not have been in the movie as their fantastic vocals lend nothing to the fleeting moments you get with these characters.

Cinematography is a moot point when you are forced to spend time in a wonderland of bramble bushes, shady (but not dark) forests and the site of a famous tea party where the crockery has been smashed. The warring sensibilities of creating a film light enough for kids and dark enough to still be Tim Burtonesque are ever present in every mood that is just missed. There also seems to be a time factor in play, as there probably should have been a half hour to 45 minutes more movie to tell the tale properly, putting the film out of reach of distracted kiddie attention spans. I’d go so far as to say I was given more time to enjoy the scenery in my walk through of the sets, props and clothing at San Diego Comic Con! Did you know the White Queen’s castle was designed from chess pieces? wouldn’t…as you barely see the place! Seems a waste to take us to a place called Wonderland and then rush us through as if the park were closing in 20 minutes.

Alice in Wonderland is all promotion and no party. The standees at your local movie theater strike a happier tone than the whole of this film. I’ve often complained that new animated projects seem to be getting more morose with every release, making me long for the day when you could turn on a Disney movie and just smile the entire time. Alice is the perfect example of this. When I go to see Alice in Wonderland, I want more eye candy than my brain can handle, laughing one minute, somewhat tense from a chase the next and grinning from ear to ear as a parade of highly imaginative characters gets their screen time. Tim Burton’s Alice lacks the power to grab you, even in the final moments when the lead heroine takes the Vorpal Sword in hand and charges toward the Jabberwocky. Even 3D doesn’t save this film and seems a throw away feature, only succeeding in creating layers like a view master reel. A good pop up book holds more surprises. The real shame is that it will be many years before anyone attempts to revisit Wonderland and give us the magic we’ve been looking forward to and we know Hollywood is capable of. Until then, go rent Disney’s animated film and allow yourself a genuinely happy moment.

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