Monday, March 22, 2010

Through The Looking Glass: ALICE IN WONDERLAND - Reviewed!

Back from the weekend, and yeah, still way behind on my blogging. So let me get right to it and talk about a film that I saw LAST weekend, one that I've been meaning to write about ever since. So without further ado ...


- I love most Tim Burton films, but I have to admit: Alice In Wonderland is not the director's finest moment. In some ways, it does feel like a parody of a Tim Burton film - overly-stylized to the point of excess, weird for the sake of being weird, Johnny Depp along for the ride as a pale-faced eccentric, Helena Bonham Carter as a pale-faced eccentric, and a goth-yet-bouncy Danny Elfman soundtrack. The thing is, typically these elements work. For those who say they don't, I point you to Sweeney Todd, which was absolutely terrific. So what makes Alice feel less like a great movie and more like a marketing tie-in with Hot Topic? Well, aside from the marketing tie-in with Hot Topic? It's tough - I don't want to flat-out bash the movie because I actually did really enjoy parts of it. There ARE sparks of greatness. But, the movie is also sort of a mess. The art-direction is often ugly and just plain odd. There's a strange mix of abstract weirdness and traditional, hero's-journey, action-adventure narrative. And some of the actors just don't seem lost trying to play to the movie's surreal aesthetic. I think Alice is interesting, and worth checking out - but it's also probably my least favorite Burton movie other than Planet of the Apes (which flat-out sucked).

Like I said, I do think there's a lot to like about the film. I actually found the premise pretty intriguing - the idea of Alice, now 20, summoned back to Wonderland (er .. Underland), to help save the magical kingdom from the Red Queen's reign of terror. Basically, it takes the traditional Alice storyline and gives it an epic spin similar to Oz or Narnia. Very cool concept, and much more interesting than one more retelling of the same old story. It's funny that the premise wasn't really advertised as such in the movie's marketing, for whatever reason. But I loved the opening scenes that help reestablish Alice as a precocious young woman in early 20th Century England - an outcast and outsider who'd rather keep herself occupied with daydreams and stories than with the trivialities of the British aristocracy. The scenes in which Alice, at a garden party in her honor, publicly turns down a marraige proposal from a snooty young chap were a lot of fun - my favorite parts of the movie, in fact. It's too bad that the rest of the film didn't live up to the great setup - which was, I think, classic Tim Burton in the best way possible. And by the way, I think that says something about Burton - that he's often at his best when he's artfully mixing the outlandish with the mundane, the fantastic with the ordinary. Once Alice goes to Wonderland, there's no tether, and it feels like Burton goes off the rails.

Luckily though, Mia Wasikowska is pretty great as Alice. Girlish yet smarter than you'd think, Mia makes Alice a classic, archetypal character who's fun to follow and easy to root for. And it's funny, because on paper the casting of the film is pretty great, and yeah, sometimes in practice. I think Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter give it their best shot, for example. Few other actors could have done as much with the material as those two. But Depp's Mad Hatter is never all that memorable or even fun. It just feels like a character that was conceived by saying "let Johnny Depp act crazy", and, well, that's about it. Given that this is something of a reimagining of the Alice mythos, you wish that there was perhaps some added twist to the character - and I think I kept waiting for that twist to come. Instead, like I said, it was a character that was basically just a vessel for Depp to get experimental - and I don't know, did he really need to change accents every couple of minutes? Again, this felt a bit like Burton and Depp going off the grid without much rhyme or reason. Just looking at Bonham-Carter's Red Queen, there's a similar feeling of annoyingly purposeless randomoddity. I mean, her character just looks lame. Not creepy or cool or anything. Just weird. The randomness by which some characters in the film are human, some inhuman, and some odd mixes of real and CGI, again, just makes for a movie that oftentimes looks ugly. This is unusual for Burton - his movies, from Edward Scissorhands to Nightmare Before Christmas to Batman to Sweeney Todd - they all, always, look amazing. But here, the Red Queen with her giant, CGI head just looks off. Same with Crispin Glover's character, Stayne, who's body is CGI-enhanced and elongated for no good reason. Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dumb are cartoonish CGI characters. Anne Hathaway as The White Queen just looks ugly and strange. Not "ugly" ugly. Just aesthetically, a bad-looking character design. Hathaway just seems lost as well - she tries to be whimsical and otherworldly but just comes off as unintentionally comical. There's an overabundance of other great actors who lend a hand via voicework. Alan Rickman as the Blue Caterpillar, Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, etc. All do a fine job, but I also don't think that they did anything particularly memorable with the iconic storybook characters that they play.

I think you get the picture. There's a ton of mismatched aesthetic and narrative elements at play here. On one hand, the movie wants to recapture the trippy, hallucinagenic, meandering vibe of the book and of the original Disney toon. On the other hand, it's trying to be a more conventional fantasy-adventure film. But the two styles don't quite gel. We're never that invested in the action or the conflict between the two Queens, because there's not much depth to their rivalry. We know that alice is the chosen one who must topple the Red Queen and slay the mythical beast known as the Jabberwocky, but beyond that there's not much meat to really give these events any weight. When Alice does her tearful goodbye to the Mad Hatter at movie's end, as she prepares to head back to the real world, I have to say that I barely cared. The characters were too thin to ever really grow very attached to. Tonally, the movie is also pretty all over the place. The darkly comic, mischevious opening really works well. But then the movie veers wildly from dark melancholy to trippy weirdness to cutesy comedy. When the Mad Hatter gets his groove thang on at one point, it was a moment akin to Peter Parker disco-dancing in Spiderman 3. All I could think was ... "whyyyyyy?!"

Still, there are those little moments that Burton really nails. Again, that great opening - Burton does young-adult alienation better than most. I liked the humorously grotesque visual of the moat full of decapitated heads, victim's of the Red Queen's rage and proclivity for beheadings. I liked certain moments of Depp's performance - when he has brief moments of sanity that shine through the madness. Again, Depp does something with the role that few others could. He really does give it a go. And there are certain moments of visual brilliance - even if the character designs are pretty wonky, there are still some really cool, eye-popping sequences.

I hope that Tim Burton can get his mojo back going forward. I don't get those who seem to flat-out bash him and his body of work. He's a brilliant director. But I think it's time for him to stop recycling old stories and give us another Big Fish - something that truly feels like his own, original vision. I think that there's a danger in studios going to Burton with properties just so he can "weird-them-up" for the Hot Topic crowd. And given Alice's huge box-office success, I'm sure that will happen. But Alice is an example of Burton's trademark aesthetic amped up to excessive levels, for no particularly good reasons, stylistic or narrative. There are definitely moments, sparks of genius, hints of great ideas. But the movie never quite 100% works the way it should.

My Grade: B-

- Okay, stay tuned for looks at REPO MEN, THE RUNAWAYS, and More!

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