Saturday, March 6, 2010

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

Tim Burton's detractors may find themselves supporting Alice in Wonderland, if only because it makes their case against him so simple. It contains nearly all of Burton's usual thematic and stylistic flourishes, but to no end. Had I not walked out of the theater with several short pages filled with notes, I might have assumed that, like Alice, I'd merely drifted off in a nebulous dream/reality world for two hours and left again. Vincent Canby once compared Heaven's Gate to a "forced four-hour walking tour of one's own living room." Alice is like a forced tour of the living room of the protagonist in one of Burton's better movies: it's weird, yes, but it seems drab and uninteresting. In a way, I sympathize with Burton: by this point, so many adaptations, homages, and re-imaginings of Lewis Carroll's novel exist across various artistic media that one must doubt whether any wonder remains in Alice at all.

Alice starts promisingly, revealing an older protagonist than the pre-teen Alice of the original story who openly disdains the social mores that bind her. She does not wear a corset and considers refusing the hand of a sniveling young lord who throws an engagement party for himself before asking her to marry him. This Alice remembers familiar images from a recurring dream -- a smiling cat, a rabbit with a clock, a blue caterpillar -- and receives a shock when she begins to see some of these creatures walking about in the real world. Naturally, she follows the rabbit to its hole, falls in and, well, you know.

Supposedly Burton envisioned his Alice as a re-imagining of the original story, so he takes elements from both Alice's Adventures in Wonderland and its loose sequel, Through the Looking Glass and invents new ones to make a sort of Return to Oz for Wonderland. But that infamously dark slab of nominal kiddie fare, or at least that appears to have been the plan.

For Alice in Wonderland is a film of buts. Alice is returning to Wonderland, but she doesn't remember the last time so she largely follows the same path she took upon her visit. The Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) has taken over and subjugated the landscape, but Wonderland still has a light mood about it. Yes, it looks like a Burton film, with tree limbs twisted into the shapes of gnarled hands and straight lines broken into odd angles, but none of it makes in impression. Burton seems to have used his storyline as an excuse to make the place dull, not twisted and evil, but spare and uninteresting. Perhaps that's the point, that a Wonderland without any sense of wonder at all is more inherently unsettling than an astonishing Wonderland that conveys a sense of corruption and mutilation, but the fact remains that Burton made more memorable worlds out of the idyllic estate in Beetlejuice and the suburbs of Edward Scissorhands than he does with a world often likened to a severe drug trip.

Most of the actors appear to have caught wise to the listlessness of the film even as they stood in front of green screens and acted out the disjointed, lethargic script. Matt Lucas (Tweedle Dee and Dum) and Anne Hathaway (the White Queen, who looks like she set aside time to appear in the film between touring with Evanescence) are only memorable because of their costuming and rendering, and, though everyone speaks with a British accent, the truly British actors get relegated to the completely CGI characters (and what is the point of casting Stephen Fry and then giving him maybe 10 lines?). Bonham Carter proves a notable exception, a Brit allowed to appear in person, more or less, who offers the only consistently emotional characterization in the film. Watch the isolation in her eyes, wavering between spoiled egomania and loneliness, or the way her lip quivers when she considers if perhaps she went too far in her quest for power and questions whether it really is better to be feared than loved.

Compare Carter to Depp, who hasn't looked so bored since the Pirates sequels. One can understand why his performance of the Mad Hatter would be all over the place, but playing an oddball does not entitle an actor to carte blanche, and Depp's wildly inconsistent performance undercuts any laughs with too-random asides and questionable attempts at sincerity. Why does Depp slip in and out of a Scottish accent? Why does he think he can get away with hamming it up all over the place and suddenly inspire pity and connection by lowering his voice for a minute? And how could Burton put both Depp, so capable with mad characters, and Crispin Glover, who may actually be insane, not only in the same film but some of the same scenes and draw absolutely no energy from them?

The one bright light of the film -- and this is nothing to scoff at -- is Alice. Mia Wasikowska receives few opportunities to make a fully-formed person out of her character, but she deftly succeeds at hitting the right mood. Wasikowska is at once waifish and fragile in the Victorian fashion yet strong-willed and capable, and her Alice is easily one of the most feminist heroines to appear in any Disney production. The narrative suffers from the speed with which Alice accepts what's happening to her and moves through most of the film simply trusting that she is in a dream, but that confidence at least reflects well on the character and it provides a strong foothold for Wasikowska to break out as a true leading lady, one who genuinely leads; it's hard to repress a "right on" when she ignores a prophecy that dictates her actions in Wonderland and definitively states "I make the path."

Yet Burton neglects his adept starlet, focusing instead on visuals that lack a shred of the creativity, making a drab steppe out of a world ripe for his demented, (occasionally) endearing big-kid sensibility. The entire third act is a complete wash -- even compared to the rest of this bore -- devolving into a slack faux-epic battle that bypasses Alice for The Chronicles of Narnia and The Lord of the Rings and even sucks the spark out of Carter's formerly enjoyable performance. Burton cannot even summon any imagination for the Jabberwocky, simply transplanting John Tenniel's original visual conception of the dragon-like creature without adding a single facet of his own design. And the refreshing feminism of the film finds an odd conclusion, with Alice back in the real world asserting herself in a manner befitting her inner strength even as the film suggests she will spend her adulthood subjugating and pillaging China in the name of mercantilism. How's that for a happy ending?

Alice demonstrates the pitfalls that come with Burton's increasing laziness as a screenwriter, eschewing original stories such as Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish for derivative re-imaginings of other stories that simply lay a template of half-hearted auterial concerns -- outcasts, Gothic aesthetics and daddy issues, which are largely and mercifully absent in this film, at least in the protagonist. I'm at an utter loss to explain how the film can be at once so cluttered, as slapdash as Depp's performance, and so loose, desolate and unappealing. Some films fail because they don't make any sense; the chief flaw of this one is that it makes too much. We're meant to believe, I think, that Wonderland brings out the champion dormant in Alice, giving her that last ounce of self-confidence needed to face the real world, but as I left the theater all I could think about was how much she towered above the land she saved even when she wasn't nibbling on size-altering scones.


  1. I gave up on Burton years ago, when I finally figured out the trailers for his movies were almost always more interesting than the movies themselves.

    For Mia Wasikowska fans, however, do check out the first season of HBO's In Treatment. She plays the patient on the "Wednesday" episodes and is astonishing.

  2. Yipes. This is the second negative review I've read from within the circle of blogs I read. I was hoping this would redeem the awful (but very colorful!) "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory." From your review, it doesn't sound like that came anywhere close to happening.

  3. Well done. You cover just about every aspect of the film comprehensively and you analyze persuasively how most of it doesn't work.

    I agree with your observations here. Depp was certainly inconsistent! The story was simplistic - more of a Narnia adventure than an enigmatic journey into a weird wonderland.

    I ended up seeing it twice. My wanted to see it, so I went with her. I have to say I still thoroughly enjoyed Bonham Carter. "I need a pig here!" That part is brilliant. And I noticed that the musical score has a haunting theme to it that stayed with me.

    Your blog is tremendous. Keep writing!

  4. Jake: Over the past two weeks I've gone to comment on this review twice, only to be interrupted. This time, for sure!

    I pretty much agree with everything you write here, but what I found profoundly disappointing about the film is how un-Burtonish it feels. I mean, yes, it has Depp and Bonham Carter and lots of Burtonesque gnarled trees. But if you switched out the signature actors from his troupe for two other stars, I think Hokahey's comment would be right on: It would feel just like a kind of Narnia adventure directed by who-can-remember in which the CGI technicians seem to be the ones in the director's seat.

    I never tire of Bonham Carter and I'm baffled as to why people are rolling their eyes at her playing crazy characters in a Burton movie again when she's often such a highlight in those films. But Depp here is close to a disaster: a character so obviously padded to be worthy of Depp's time, with inconsistent antics and motivations and the eyes of Elijah Wood. Depp's only hope is to try to be mad in some creative, new way, and he's kind of run out of options, other than maybe to have his character walk only on his hands.

    What I enjoyed about the film is that it shows a girl with strength -- not just in the end, but when she repeatedly insists that she controls the way. Here-here! (Also, in certain scenes she looks an awful lot like my high school girlfriend, who was also a take-charge leader type. But I digress.)

    In Burton's best films -- and my favorites are probably Edward Scissorhands and Big Fish -- his visual spectacles cut to the heart of the emotion. But I didn't feel that here. Based on the trailers, I expected the film to be underwhelming. But I at least thought it would feel like Burton. Oh well.

  5. Sorry for the issues Jason, I've been struggling this week as well. Did you get the feeling, as I did, that it was so close to getting this right. It gave the audience possibly the strongest female lead a major Disney production ever had and there were moments of cleverness. But it was trying to be both "Return to Oz"-like revisionism, a sequel and the first in a new franchise in its own right, and with all that ambition it's so surprising how dull the movie was. I understand that Wonderland reflected the Red Queen's rule, but why did it look so boring? Why not at least evil in an interesting way?

    I absolutely agree with you on the strengths of his warped visuals as expressionistic pieces, and the great tragedy of this Alice is that it suggests Burton doesn't have a clue what he's trying to express anymore.