Monday, March 15, 2010

Alice In Wonderland Review

Alice In Wonderland:
Directed by Tim Burton
Released in 2010

Who can possibly create a reimagination of Lewis Carroll's beloved Alice's Adventures in Wonderland story and the subsequent 1951 Disney animated film? Tim Burton, of course. It seems etched in stone. Atop Mount Sinai there is probably a lost tablet foretelling the day when Burton would direct a new Alice. Look at any of Tim's previous work, whether it be Edward Scissorhands, Big Fish, Beetlejuice, or even Batman, and traces of Lewis Carroll's tale can be found. So why do I feel disappointed by Burton's latest work? I share an inordinate love for the man's catalog of films, more than most. However, like 2012 on the Mayan calender, not every event God portends is meant to be great. 

Now, comparing the new Alice in Wonderland to the apocalypse is harsh. This movie is good. It is a solid entry in the usually-disparate month of March, and its huge box office draw so far is encouraging for the director whose last big success was the shoddy Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (this movie is better than Charlie, rest assured). It is not as impressive as I hoped for, however, and that can be blamed on a few aspects. I am going to break into list format, a first for a review of mine, and list the 3 problems with this movie:

  1. 3D. What used to be a juvenile accessory to add incentive to see such masterworks like Fly Me To The Moon and Open Season in theaters is quickly turning into the norm. After the most successful film of all time, last year's Avatar, showed the world how to properly make 3D work, every movie now believes throwing 3D glasses on their patrons will equally throw butts into seats. Avatar was beautiful; the 3D helped enhance the experience by adding depth and never relied on cheap cliches like tossing hats at the screen to remind the audience that this was not something that could work (at least not yet) at home. In contrast, Alice In Wonderland is a 3D film with no use for this extra dimension. The added dimension desaturates the color, lessening the impact of the excellent work gone into the art design, shown by the not-so-bright foliage of "Underland" (that is what the world is actually called). Unless studios are going to go all out, scrap 3D.
  2. CGI. Computer animation is a wonderful thing. Look at the beauty Pixar has been able to capture time and time again with this colorful, advanced medium. The Harry Potter and Lord Of The Rings films have also successfully merged live action with digital effects, crafting a believable, though fake, world. Similar to recent George Lucas and Steven Spielberg works, Alice suffers from an over-reliance on CGI. Beautiful environments are rendered unfortunately prosthetic as seams in the animation show. As the film progresses, it becomes apparent that the only real objects on the soundstage are the actors themselves. 
  3. A lack of focus. In a movie like Alice in Wonderland, the first true acid trip in cinema form, this complaint may come as elitist and unnecessary. Nevertheless, this film straddles between an adult psychedelic tale and a children's action film, as the final action scene will attest. Watching Alice wander around Underland, encountering all of the strange citizens and dangers, is entertaining to a point. There is a lull in the middle that should not be in a story of such hypnotic energy, or else one that is under 2 hours long. Then a final battle scene comes out of nowhere to inject some energy, but does it fit in context? I am not so sure.
Thankfully, everything else I have to say about this film is positive. First off, the cast is stellar. Johnny Depp is the Mad Hatter, the signature Wonderland resident who will slip from a soft accent with a lisp to a rich Scottish accent depending on the level of aggression he is aiming for. Depp is a consistently excellent actor and watching him act, literally, insane is a pleasure. Helena Bonham Carter, who has been in nearly all of the recent Burton (her husband) films, works for her slot as she plays the Red Queen. More silly than menacing, the Queen has a huge, "bulbous" head and is obsessed with cutting off every enemy's head. A bit dim-witted herself, the Queen is an entertaining character and given a fair treatment by Carter. Anne Hathaway is the peaceful White Queen, and perfectly acceptable in her role. Nothing amazing from her but it is hard to draw up any legitimate complaints. The elusive Crispin Glover plays the Knave of Hearts, basically the Knight to the Red Queen. Glover is a fascinating actor considering he is known for his quirky behavior and strange cadence but, like many unusual actors, he is an excellent performer. Let's see more of this smart, yet creepy, dude.

The voice talent behind many of the digital characters also draws from the finest in the English crop. Everyone loves Alan Rickman, and he is the prophetic Blue Caterpillar who usually reminds the audience that this film had a drug-influenced motif all the way back to the 1951 animated film. Stephen Fry, the Brit with that very memorable voice, lends his pipes to the role of Chesire Cat, the diaphanous feline whose floating face will always haunts children. Timothy Spall (Peter Pettigrew from Harry Potter and The Beadle in Sweeney Todd) is the loyal dog Bayard, and Michael Sheen is the expeditious White Rabbit. Matt Lucas, the raunchy, baby-faced English comedian, is both Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and the CGI that powers his appearance is both hilarious and disturbing. Last but not least, Alice is played by a relatively unknown actress, Mia Wasikowska. Mia is beautiful and really looks like Alice; the casting was perfect in that sense. She could have been more emotive, but I enjoyed her grown-up take on Alice.

The story itself is technically a sequel to the original story, as an older Alice revisits the land that she visited as a young girl. In the Victorian world she calls home, she is currently forced to marry a lord on status, and not love, alone. The charming recreation of Victorian England starts the film out strong, and, of course, she falls down that rabbit hole one more time. Her destiny is told to her outright, as she must slay the vicious Jabberwocky (voiced by a booming Christopher Lee). What follows is very similar to the original tale, such as the various character encounters and trippy aesthetic feel. Tim Burton could have gone farther with the vibe of Alice's original tale that was caught in song by Jefferson Airplane's famous "White Rabbit." Whether it is the PG rating or focus on a younger audience (again, this is in 3D), the mature feeling of the original is somewhat lost. 

In the end, we all knew that Tim Burton was going to do Alice In Wonderland. Some of us just believe it could have been done better. Style reigns over substance, and while that could be acceptable in this story that relies so heavily on visuals, the 3D ends up spoiling the artistic merit. Perhaps a viewing of this film in two dimensions would cure this feeling, but it certainly leaves a bad aftertaste. Still, after saying all of this, I enjoyed this movie. Any fan of the story or just Tim Burton himself will find something to like here. The cast is solid and, deep under the artificial layers, there is a beautiful world of flora and fauna. To add to this, last night I rewatched Where The Wild Things Are. This update on a children's classic combined deep symbolism and its fascinating visual style to create the equivalent of a graphic poem. Alice has its attractive aesthetics, crippled as they are, but is missing its lyrical core. I just wish Alice's fall down the rabbit hole was, ironically, deeper.

Final Verdict: 
2 Stars Out of 5

1 comment:

Skrattybones said...

What I think is interesting about this is that there seem to be two schools of thought: Those who love Burton films And thought Alice in Wonderland was OK, and those who aren't fans of Burton but thought Alice in Wonderland was OK.

I think it speaks to his credit that he managed to create a product that fans like yourself can still enjoy, albeit not as much as you can imagine you would otherwise, and the people like myself who don't usually enjoy a Burton can still watch Alice in Wonderland and not be turned off by his style.