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Friday, April 9, 2010
'Alice in Wonderland'
Hubris haunts this (mis)take on a classic
One pill makes you larger, and one pill makes you small, but the ones that Tim Burton gives you don't do anything at all. Go see "Alice."
Lewis Carroll's classic 1865 children's story "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" has inspired countless films, and most have hewn pretty close to the original. Even Disney's cartoony 1951 version had a healthy respect for its source, elaborating mostly with some slapsticky sight gags.
But director Tim Burton thinks he knows better. His hubris is such that his "Alice In Wonderland" tosses Carroll's story entirely, keeping only the well-known characters for this "sequel" to the original, in which Alice, at age 19, returns to the magical world of her childhood adventure.
Working off an original screenplay by Linda Woolverton ("Mulan"), Burton seems intent on turning his "Alice" into a girl-power version of "Lord of the Rings." As much as I love this Californian director/producer and his gothlite aesthetic, let's not forget that the last time he set out to "re-imagine" some source material, the end result was "Planet of the Apes." Need I say more?
Where Carroll's tale was a mischievous foray into nonsense and whimsy, a dream world where "logic and proportion have fallen sloppy dead" (as Jefferson Airplane put it in their 1967 classic, "White Rabbit" — also referenced at the top of this story), Burton's vision is one where little Alice (Mia Wasikowska) has grown up into a bodice-bursting teen who has to slay a fire-breathing dragon with her vorpal blade, while a broadsword-wielding clown-faced Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp) leads a legion of chessmen-soldiers into battle against the evil tyranny of the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter).
On the bright side, at least there's no pre-battle scene where the Mad Hatter gives a big blustery speech about how they are fighting for freedom and democracy in Wonderland. On the flip side, if I have to sit through one more "Matrix" / "Star Wars"-damaged quasi-biblical movie about a "chosen one" who is prophesied to lead his/her people to freedom, I'll surely throw up.
Some days it feels like Hollywood is just making the same movie over and over again, merely changing the special effects and costumes with each installment. I even wonder whether Hollywood filmmakers — and I include Burton in this category, despite his frequent diversions from the norm — would argue this point; from their perspective, they believe they've found The Formula That Works — the fanboy-friendly heroic quest movie.
Thus even the most surreal and meandering children's tale ever becomes just another three-act Manichaean war between good and evil, to be filed alongside "300," "Prince Caspian," "Legion" and "Avatar." But Carroll's tale was not in the least a story of good and evil — rather of logic and illogic, a Zen koan world where rationality ran into the circumlocutions of a smoke-blowing caterpillar. But Hollywood likes illogic about as much as it likes funding Terry Gilliam films, i.e. not a lot.
Still, even viewed as just another popcorn flick, Burton's "Alice" is an exceptionally weak film, with the director relying on his same old bromides. Alice flees straightlaced Victorian society and an arranged marriage to find a group of lovable misfits in Wonderland, where she is prophesied to save them from the head-chopping Red Queen and her fearsome Jabberwocky. She gets chased around by a bunch of monsters and playing-card soldiers, and after running out the clock, guess what? She does exactly what the prophesy said she would, complete with a Schwarznegger-esque one-liner when she kills the baddie. (And this moment must be the absolute nadir of Burton's entire cinematic career.)
It's sacrilege to criticize anything Johhny Depp is in these days, but while his Mad Hatter would have made a great cameo, it's been uselessly puffed up into a star billing. Aside from looking like a tranny scarecrow, Depp veers between gonzo Hunter Thompson-inspired ramblings and a snarling Scottish brogue (seemingly lifted from Mel Gibson in "Braveheart"). Put simply, there's simply no point of connection between the two.
A more generous critic might say Depp is doing a masterful impersonation of schizophrenia; for my money, he's just winging it.
Helena of the Bonham Carter ilk does, however, generate some laughs as the inflated-headed Red Queen (the movie's best special effect), and Alan Rickman is suitably condescending as the hookah-smoking Caterpillar — but you know something's wrong when even the presence of Crispin Glover (as the Knave of Hearts) barely registers.
As for the 3-D cinematography, don't get me started. Burton has created the cinematic equivalent of a pop-up book, with virtually no sense of space between extreme foreground and deep background, and some distressingly blurry bits as well. This is a shame, since Burton does manage to nail the look, with roly-poly Tweedledum and Tweedledee lumbering past talking flowers and giant towering toadstools. It makes for a great trailer, that's for sure.
The movie comes to a close (spoiler alert here) with Alice, having discovered her own inner strength, rejecting the idea of marriage and deciding to helm her father's business venture . . . an imperialistic trading company bent on opening up China to foreign trade, and, presumably, British-sold opium from its Raj. This smug "triumph" of female self-empowerment is unfortunately delivered without the slightest sense of irony.