Thursday, March 11, 2010
Movie Review: Alice in Wonderland
This past weekend I headed to the theaters to check out Disney's latest adaptation of Alice in Wonderland from the great mind of Tim Burton. I am a huge Burton fan. I believe him to be one of a very few directors on a very short list that are true visionaries in film making right now. Burton always brings his unique vision and directorial style to each project, infusing even the broadest subject with his own unique flair and sensibility. Alice in Wonderland was a film that I was very much anticipating this year, as it marked Burton's re-teaming with two of his usual suspects, Helena Bonham Carter and the great Johnny Depp. Unfortunately, Alice in Wonderland didn't live up to my expectations.
The story, based on author Lewis Carroll's children's classics, Alice in Wonderland, the sequel Through the Looking Glass, and his poem The Jabberwocky, all act as the basis for a completely new tale for Alice, her third visit to Wonderland, here called Underland, as a 19 year old girl on the cusp of her wedding. The film draws its inspiration from each story, using familiar elements and characters in a retread of story ideas that Alice is supposedly experiencing for the first time, again. Sounds convoluted? It is.
Alice (newcomer Mia Wasikowska) fleeing a proposal of marriage, follows the White Rabbit down the Rabbit Hole and meets many of the characters from the story, The Dormouse, the Chesire Cat, The Mad Hatter, all of whom believe her to be the prophecised one, the one who will wield the Vorpal sword and slay the Jabberwocky (a dragon) to rid Underland from the rule of the tyrannical Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and restoring the White Queen (Anne Hathaway) to power. Along the way she is helped by the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) whose role is fleshed out in the movie, giving us insight into how exactly he became mad. In the end, a reluctant Alice must decide if she is really experiencing these adventures and take up the mantle of hero.
I think my biggest problem with the movie is the story. First, I don't really get the need for this to be a third adventure when it recycles so many elements from the books. The Mad Hatter's Tea Party, the Eat Me, Drink Me riddle of sizes, following the Rabbit Hole, the Red Queen playing croquet and being generally insufferable. I think the real point was to add the climatic fight scene against the Jabberwocky in the end. Bonham Carter's Red Queen is really a one note character, screaming "Off with their heads" endlessly and not really bringing any depth to the role. One of the great things about the book was that it dealt with issues like puberty and maturation in a way that didn't beat either child or adult reader over the head. Here its a bit more ham fisted. Some things can't be avoided, but you never get the feeling that Alice learns this lesson, you just learn that she does it.
I also missed Alice's sense of curiosity. The books are so filled with the wonder and insanity that permeates Wonderland and Alice's reaction to it. In the film Alice seems almost reluctant and at times down right angry at being inconvenienced. You never get that sense of wonder as she travels through her adventure and at meeting all these strange and wonderful creatures. Especially considering that she isn't supposed to remember her previous trips here, the whole time it felt like she was being inconvenienced by this adventure, a feeling I certainly never felt in the books or other adaptations. I mean there may have been moments of frustration previously or confusion, but following each trial she would revert to her curious nature.
There were some good moments in the film. Visually Tim Burton still has a wonderful eye for creating both macabre and the wonderful. Each character has a look that is, while utterly stylized Tim Burton, still easily identifiable with the preconceived notions of what we expect the characters to look like, from Helena Bonham Carter's huge headed Red Queen to Johnny Depp's unique take on the Mad Hatter. Personally I loved the pale look of Anne Hathaway's White Queen, having both the sense of hope and a sense of the bizarre in her look. Visually Wonderland/Underland is also unique, especially in 3D as Burton makes the world come alive, the lustrous color and digital effects work are really top of the line. That being said I thought some of the 3D effects were off kilter and didn't jibe well, though I have been told by many people that those issues are not in the 2D version of the film. A few times the 3D effects didn't line up in accordance and made everything fuzzy. I am not sure if this is true in all versions, or just the theater I saw it in, or if it was an IMAX error so take that as you will.
Casting was pretty strong overall too. Johnny Depp does his usual best with Burton, finding an undercurrent in the Mad Hatter, especially when you look at the origin of the Hatter and how he became the person he is, that really sets his performance apart from the rest. Anne Hathaway's White Queen is very good too. She is quickly carving out a wide range of roles and acting experiences and she lends a very Tim Burton-esque performance to her White Queen, both eccentric and creepy with just the right touch of sadness and pathos. Mia Wasikowska does an admirable job with the material and I would love to see her in something else. She had a very wide-eyed innocent quality that I think really comes across in her acting, though I didn't think the way the script treated Alice did her role justice. Helena Bonham Carter is also criminally underused in this movie. Her Red Queen is a one note joke with no depth of character, even when they try to add in a sub plot of romance with the Knave of Hearts (played by the wonderfully creepy Crispin Glover) they never really do anything with her character. She's simply vapid and shrill, screaming "Off with her head!" over and over. Which in theory would be okay if that hadn't taken the time to flesh out the other characters of Wonderland, like the Hatter, the Cheshire Cat, and the White Queen. The film also boasts some great voice talent, Stephen Fry as the Cheshire Cat, Alan Rickman as the Caterpillar, Michael Sheen as the White Rabbit, Timothy Spall as Bayard, and the great Christopher Lee as the voice of the Jabberwocky. Really great casting, if not always effectual in performance.
The bottom line for me is that I think that Tim Burton got in his own way making this movie, it was already primed for him to adapt this film and it feels like he is trying so hard to make this movie feel like a Tim Burton film that he doesn't let it breathe. A simple straight adaptation of the film would have benefited him more as well. It feels like the movie was written so that we could have a final climatic battle between Alice and the Jabberwocky. To be honest, you can also see the palpable differences in the film where the studio wanted something and where Burton got his way. I'd really like to see him go back to developing his own properties again. Alice in Wonderland feels like Tim Burton trying very hard to be Tim Burton if that makes sense. What is sad is that he shouldn't have tried so hard to force the film, the film is there underneath all the other stuff if he had only spent some time on the script more.
In the end from what I have read and seen, reviews on the film have been about 50/50, with some people loving what the film has done, and other like me who see the potential faults in the movie. This is honestly one of those times when I have to say make your own opinion about the film. I didn't care for it and I love Tim Burton typically. Disney's Alice in Wonderland is a huge spectacle of a film that has opportunities in itself. Personally I think that Burton is one of the best directors working today and with the depth of talent he had in the cast, this movie fell far short of my expectations.