Thursday, March 18, 2010

Review: Alice In Wonderland (Tim Burton, 2010)

Tim Burton should really stick to original ideas instead of re-creating and ultimately destroying previous well established ones. His version of Planet of the Apes was a big disappointment, and while I admired his Charlie and the Chocolate Factory re-make for what it was, I think that it was naive to think that the magic of the original could even be reached again. Johnny Depp's performance, while strikingly odd, lacked the heart and substance that made Gene Wilder's portrayal so wonderful. I would argue that Depp's Mad Hatter is in the same vein, as is the entire film. Beyond the visuals, Alice in Wonderland lacks substance in almost every nuance of the story-telling.

Burton's Alice is an extension on the beloved novels of Lewis Carroll, and works as a sequel, as a 19 year-old Alice re-enters the world that has plagued her dreams for years. The films opens with a young Alice recounting these dreams to her father about a rabbit in a waistcoat, a blue caterpillar and a magical world. She views it to be precisely that, a dream, a feature which becomes an irritating answer to everything she encounters in the world. It then jumps ahead 13 years where Alice is being ushered along to a party at a rich estate. Unknown to her, this party is a celebration of her pending engagement to Hamish, the son of the man that has taken over her late father's trading firm.

The opening dialogue exchanges are cringe-worthy and even from here, the script is hell-bent on being a disaster. Mia Wasikowska has some talent but she is given very little to do. I expected her to be just an observer and all the crazy images would run around her. But she was more involved than I expected, and her performance wasn't bad. Almost no relationship is established with her mother in the early sequences, and after a few chance encounters with the odd characters at the Victorian party, she pursues after the rabbit in a waistcoat to avoid making her decision to marry Hamish. She plummets down a burrow into Underland, the world she had once visited as a child, but had dismissed it as a dream.

After finding the key and drinking the potion to become smaller, Alice enters Underland and meets a host of bizarre characters. Visually the world is stunning, and the 3D makes it look incredible. But there is very little to this narrative beyond the visual. The score was also very boring, utilizing mostly one melody but at different tempos. We discover that the Red Queen (played well by Helena Bonham Carter) has overthrown the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) and much of Underland has been destroyed by fiery ruin. The major concern is whether this Alice is the Alice who had previously visited Underland, and the White Rabbit and his companions Tweedledee and Tweedledum escort Alice to Absolem the Caterpillar, who notions to a scroll, which has Alice featured as the slayer of the Jabberwocky, and the end to the reign of the Red Queen in Underland. When it is discovered that she is indeed back, the Red Queen summons a 'card hunt' to capture Alice.

After evading capture, Alice is found by a grinning Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry) and led to the Tea Party featuring the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the March Hare and a Doormouse. She is hidden once again from the Red Queen's pawns. Depp's performance here is suitably odd, and he has his moments. But it lacks any real heart. He is a very sad character that misses his old profession and has all but given up hope of any change to Underland. His make-up and eyebrows were just too over-the-top. In the ensuing sequences, The Hatter is captured and imprisoned by The Red Queen, Alice plots to rescue him and infiltrates the Palace under an alias, retrieves the sword she will require to kill the Jaberwocky and escapes to the Palace of the White Queen, where she discovers it is her destiny to challenge the Jaberwocky and bring peace to Underland.

The final battle sequence is pretty boring also. The 'chosen one' idea is hammed home and the 'all a dream' perspective plagues the film too. Most of the jokes involving the Red Queen are about her enormous head, and most of the supporting characters feature very little. The narrative is actually pretty cohesive, which is a flaw. The story is so basic, and lacks any of the hallucinogenic incoherence featured in the novels. It is all set out at the beginning, and pans out exactly as one would expect. The middle third of the film is certainly the best, but it becomes out-of-control by the final act.

When Alice returns home, she is suddenly clear on her decision with Hamish, and offers a comment to all of the characters at the party. She is full of these sudden epiphanies and presents her ideas to Hamish's father about extending trade into China. Where did all of this come from? All that she experiences in Underland has absolutely no bearing on her life at all. She never really did fit in with Victorian culture, and she found a place where she actually felt she belonged. Filled with the pride she had saved Underland, I guess she returns home with a clearer head and the motivation to transform her actual life into something that has meaning. This is really stretching it, however, and this is poorly articulated in the concluding sequences.

Some of the visuals are just stunning, especially the details of the forest, the two castles, the animation on the Cheshire Cat and the card minions. The film's art direction and costume design is also very impressive. I had heard some very bad things about this film, so I went in with low expectations, and I was not surprised. There were lots of missed opportunities to further develop, well, everything. It could have been another 20 minutes longer and taken the time to properly examine the characters. The script is just so disappointing, and I fear that Tim Burton's time may be up.

My Rating: 1 1/2 Stars

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