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Entries in Alice in Wonderland [2010] (1)

Sunday
Mar072010

Alice in Wonderland (2010)

A Tale of Ordinary Madness

Besides Cop Out, Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is the most frustrating, boring movie I’ve endured in months. Both films nearly defeated me. There were several moments when the aisle and the exit sign called out to me, and it took every ounce of faith that things could get better to stay in my seat. If you’ve seen either of the Chronicles of Narnia movies, The Golden Compass, The Wizard of Oz, Return to Oz, The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, or any of the animated or live-action iterations of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, there is literally no reason for you to waste your time and money on this under-done Big Mac of a motion picture.

I’ve been thinking about that hamburger analogy a lot lately, as it applies to Tim Burton. He was once a gifted visionary who made challenging, risky films that happened to pay off for the Hollywood studios. To think of the director is to instantly recall Beetlejuice, Edward Scissorhands, The Nightmare Before Christmas, and Batman. Watching a Burton picture then was akin to biting into a perfect filet mignon for the first time (for my vegetarian friends, I gladly substitute a barbecue black bean burger from the Daily Bar & Grill in Chicago’s Lincoln Square neighborhood). In recent years, though, his aesthetic and narrative quirks have become a reliable, generic formula—to the point where you can predict everything that will appear on the screen just by looking at the poster; much like a McDonald’s hamburger, Burton now makes disposable comfort food that bears only a passing resemblance to what it’s supposed to be (it may also give you an awful stomach brick two hours later).

Ironically, one of my biggest gripes with Alice is that Burton tried something different. This movie is not a retelling of the classic Lewis Carroll story, but rather a sequel. Alice, you see, had her wonderland adventure and went through the Looking Glass as a child; now, thirteen years later, she’s a an allegedly rebellious young woman who dreads her impending arranged marriage into a wealthy British family. During the engagement party, she spies a rabbit and follows it, eventually falling down a hole into—

Hey, this sounds an awful lot like the original story! She finds herself in a room with a tiny door, and must consume shrinking and growing potions in order to pass through it. Later, she meets a blue caterpillar, the Cheshire Cat, and the Mad Hatter, and eventually comes into conflict with the Red Queen. All of this is presented as “new”, though, because Linda Woolverton’s screenplay plays up three very tiresome conceits: A) the whole experience is a dream, B) she doesn’t remember most of the people/creatures she comes into contact with, even though she’s had recurring nightmares about them for years, and C) the rest of the Wonderland (sorry, “Underland”; stand back) crew don’t believe that this Alice is the same Alice from before.

This becomes a real problem from an audience member’s standpoint, because we know going in that A) the experience is not a dream, B) we already know most of the characters—and the new ones are so uninteresting that they don’t matter anyway, and C) we know from the film’s opening that this Alice is the real Alice. Had Burton and Woolverton actually created a story or at least an atmosphere in which all of the above were in doubt, then maybe it wouldn’t be such a chore to watch the same variation on this conversation:

Alice: But none of this is real! It’s only a dream!

Bizarre Creature/Human with a CG-Enhanced Large Head and/or Eyes: No it’s not!

Sidekick Creature: Doesn’t matter! She’s not the real Alice!

Alice: Yes, I am! But none of this is real! It's only a dream!

Bizarre Creature/Human with a CG-Enhanced Large Head and/or Eyes: No it’s not!

(In the spirit of the screenplay, I copied-and-pasted that last line, instead of typing something new.)

There’s also the matter of a prophetic scroll that clearly shows Alice fighting the Jaberwocky, a fierce, fire-breathing dragon. The Audience knows it’s Alice, but none of the characters believe it, and that conversation keeps popping up as well; and because the movie’s two hours long, all moviegoers can do is settle in for a long, candy-colored slog towards an inevitable, under whelming Epic Battle. Guess who wins.

I guess if you’re an eight-year-old kid, this movie would knock your socks off. I can see Alice and Wonderland becoming this generation’s The Dark Crystal. But the sad thing is, that’s about the extent of this film’s audience appeal: kids who don’t know any better and adults who still give Tim Burton a pass because his visual tricks are literally more than they can imagine themselves (the same people who were “amazed” by Avatar after the first twenty minutes).

The script is shit, and the look of the film is equally uninspired. In terms of invention, there’s nothing here that you wouldn’t expect to see in a Tim Burton Alice in Wonderland movie—from the bare trees with the curlicue branches to the brightly colored, overdone everything else, this movie is flat, flat, flat. I didn’t bother to see it in 3D. I knew going in that I’d be more stimulated by saving $3.50 on the special glasses and instead buying a medium popcorn whose kernels I could just hurl at my own face.

But you may be thinking, “Wait, Ian, Johnny Depp’s in this movie...AS THE MAD HATTER! It’s gotta be worth seeing for that alone!”

Nope. Not even close. Johnny Depp is a fine actor, and he’s done some really interesting things with the performances he’s turned in for Tim Burton in the past (the high water mark for both actor and director being Ed Wood, sixteen years ago). But in this movie, he’s nigh unintelligible, switching between a swishy knock-off of Robert Downey, Jr. as Sherlock Holmes and a gruff Scottish accent that makes The Simpsons’ Groundskeeper Willy seem less stereotypical. He zips about and changes moods and personas, mumbling or yelling made-up words; it’s the family-friendly version of an unrestrained performance; the effect is not intriguing—it’s annoying. It’s problematic when your second lead character seems to be working without a script or a hook. And there’s no way to portray genuine madness in a Disney film, so I guess this is what we get instead; kind of like asking Ron Jeremy to play an abstinence-only advocate in a Focus on the Family recruitment video.

And what of Alice? That’s a harder call. Because her character’s main job is to stand off to the side of the screen so that we can better see the special effects, Mia Wasikowska is kind of a blank slate here. I mean that literally, as her skin is so pale I had a hard time distinguishing her face from the daytime sky in some scenes; I guess this is fitting given the anemic film in which she stars. But, seriously, she didn’t make much of an impression. I’ve seen her part and her performance in all of the movies I referenced earlier.

In fact, all of the great actors in Alice in Wonderland are either miscast or underused. How does one lure Crispin Glover out of his sheltered life of directing art films starring the mentally challenged? Surely, it had to be something more enticing than his stooge role as Stayne, the Knave of Hearts. This felt like a faux-weird decision by a Disney exec to pull in the hipsters—except that a weird actor in a nothing role is not quirky, it’s just sad and forgettable. Glover’s scenes with Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen are so strained that I thought I was watching a pair of celebrity cameos in a Muppets movie. Lastly, there’s Anne Hathaway as the White Queen, whose performance was overshadowed by the positively ghoulish manner in which she carried her arms and hands, bent permanently at Fairy Tale Princess Angles—as if her limbs had locked while modeling the Happy Meal toy version of herself. I hope each of these actors takes their big-time studio cash and uses it to support themselves while making good movies.

If you’re looking for a real fantasy/adventure film, stay home and rent Spike Jonze’s Where the Wild Things Are. That’s a challenging, imaginative picture whose every beat cannot be predicted. It features well-crafted, subtle special effects and a lead actor in Max Records that compels, repulses, and intrigues in the most honest ways possible. You may feel weird when it’s over, as the story delves into some harsh, dark areas, but I can almost guarantee you’ll be satisfied. Unlike Alice in Wonderland, you won’t suffer from psychic indigestion and nausea.