Mar 6, 2010

Review Post 67: Alice in Wonderland

DIR: Tim Burton

It is hard to imagine a more perfect union of filmmaker and material than that of Tim Burton with Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, a book he’s said he’s had ambitions to film for some time. So it is both a surprise and a shame that this film falls so flat..

This Alice is not an adaptation of Carroll’s books (though it touches on many familiar scenes) as much as it is a sequel. Burton’s Alice, played by relative newcomer Mia Wasikowska, is not the little girl of the familiar story; she’s now 19, and what recall she has of Wonderland she dismisses as merely a dream. Alice is about to be married off to a lord, but she runs away from the proposal, following a white rabbit (voiced by Michael Sheen) and once again tumbles down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. There she finds the familiar cast of characters; The Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the Cheshire Cat (voiced by Stephen Fry), Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas) and the two queens of Wonderland, the evil Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) and her pure, beautiful, sister the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Alice discovers that, according to prophecy, only she can defeat the fearsome Jabberwocky (voiced by Christopher Lee) and thus free Wonderland from the grasp of the Red Queen.

Apparently Burton has said of this project that the challenge for him was to make Alice feel like a story as opposed to a series of events. If this was his aim then he has completely and utterly failed, because Alice in Wonderland, though it does move towards a final confrontation, feels like nothing more than a series of vaguely related scenes, devoid of connective tissue, specifically any real character development (witness Alice’s arc, which can be summed up as 90 minutes of 'it’s a dream' before a final ten minute sequence in which she, barely explicably, decides to don armour and fight a monster). The rest of the film unfolds in skits, allowing the more famous members of the cast to come in and do their thing every few scenes. As well as making the film bitty as a narrative this approach renders its quality extremely patchy.

There are a few excellent guest spots. Most notable are the vocal contributions of Britsh actors Stephen Fry, whose performance as the Cheshire Cat is both droll and vocally as airy and elusive as the character himself, Timothy Spall, who makes the dog Bayard one of the film’s most genuine heroes, and Alan Rickman, whose patented laconic drawl is a perfect fit for Absalom the hookah smoking caterpillar. Sadly there are also a lot of disappointments among the cast. It’s not that Helena Bonham Carter is bad as the Red Queen, it’s just that her very funny performance is actually Miranda Richardson’s very funny performance. Bonham Carter has almost completely lifted this Red Queen from Richardson’s hilarious turn as a stupid, spoiled, Elizabeth I in British sitcom Blackadder II. Inspiration is one thing, but really, if you took Richardson’s Elizabeth and inflated her head with CGI you could just drop her into this film without anyone noticing. I love Crispin Glover, he makes a lot of crap (and there must have been interesting discussions on set regarding his parody of Depp and Burton’s Willy Wonka in the awful Epic Movie), but he’s just so intriguingly odd. Usualy. Burton seems to have directed Glover (as the Knave of Hearts) to play everything as flat as possible, even Glover’s distinctive voice seems to be toned down, as if he’s been told to be as conventional as he can. It’s irritating, because an actor as profoundly odd as Crispin Glover is a perfect fit for this story (though I imagine his initial idea may have been that he play Alice) and to make him mask what makes him a perfect fit is, frankly, stupid.

The lion’s share of the screentime is given to two characters, Mia Wasikowska’s Alice - obviously - and Johnny Depp’s Mad Hatter. I always want to like Johnny Depp, he’s a sensationally gifted actor, and can express great emotion with such moving subtlety (see, for example, Burton’s Edward Scissorhands). Unfortunately, since playing Jack Sparrow, That Johnny Depp seems to have died, he’s been replaced by a man who never met a piece of scenery (or here a green screen) that he couldn’t chew. As the Mad Hatter Depp is just awful, it’s as if he can’t decide what to do, so he’s going to do EVERYTHING. There’s a lisping, vaguely English, accent for some of his lines, but at times he lapses into sub-Shrek comedy Skuttish, for no apparent reason. The performance seems built from spare parts; prancing, creepy, Wonka here; drunk action man Jack Sparrow there. It’s fine to be broad, after all he’s playing the Mad Hatter, but there’s nothing new here. More damagingly, the Hatter doesn’t really come off as ‘mad’. Point of fact he’s barely eccentric, and certainly he’s never remotely funny. I’ve no idea what Burton and Depp were aiming for here, but more worryingly I’m not convinced that they knew either.

At the film’s centre the delicately pretty Mia Wasikowska seems a little lost as Alice. That’s not entirely her fault. She’s got a poorly drawn and largely inert character arc, and frankly Alice was always a dull protagonist, more a vehicle to show us the weird and wonderful sights of Wonderland than a character in her own right. However, until the final battle in which, gorgeous valkyrie though she is in her armour, Wasikowska is an utterly unconvincing warrior, she actually does well within a limited part, finding a middle ground between wide-eyed little girl and strong grown woman. She’s a glorified tour guide, but she’s rather enjoyable to follow, and there’s enough here to suggest that she’ll do better work in the future, when she’s allowed to stretch more.

So, we’re about 1000 words into a review of a 3D Tim Burton film, and I haven’t yet discussed the visuals. First off, the 3D. Alice in Wonderland wasn’t designed for 3D, it’s a retrofit job, and it shows, because this is a seriously flat film in visual as well as emotional terms. The most enjoyable section of the film, from a visual standpoint, was the opening ten minutes or so, which takes place in the real world. During much of this sequence (because Burton barely uses the 3D) I was able to lift up my 3D glasses and watch the film without them. It was a considerably better experience this way. First of all, the colour was correct, and the visual intent of the film (which has a glowing, sunshine and candle lit, quality here) was able to come through unencumbered. I was still able to get the illusion of depth too, because, lets be clear here, 2D cinema CAN do depth.

Once Alice enters Wonderland the 3D becomes more prevalent, but I only really perceived it on the occasions that I wanted to lift my glasses up and try, again, to watch it in its proper 2D version. In 3D Wonderland is still flat and lifeless (if immaculately designed and beautiful to behold). On the one hand you could say that this means I’m adjusting to 3D, on the other you could say it means that Burton is using it poorly. I don’t know which is true, but I do know that it still adds nothing to the film, and remains a distracting rather than an immersive experience. What surprises me about the 3D is that it is so lifeless. It’s as if Burton has had the technology thrust on him, because all his work is so meticulously designed you have to suspect that the fact he barely makes use of this new design technology speaks to a lack of interest in it.

The film’s CGI is relatively impressive, and the human characters are well integrated into what is an entirely artificial environment, but the problem is that that environment never stops feeling artificial. Of course this could be seen as problem inherent to the story, but Jan Svankmajer’s Alice (with its use of stop motion characters and scenery) doesn’t suffer from it. It’s that perennial problem of the intangibility of CGI, that still not quite real texture that it has, that just means it doesn’t feel credible. If the whole of Wonderland were digital this might have been less of an issue, but with other human characters appearing alongside Alice it was distracting. I’m coming pretty close to saying that I’m done with 3D, and certainly I’m done with retrofitted 3D. It clearly not only fails to benefit, but undermines, the intent of a filmmaker.

Alice in Wonderland isn’t without its pleasures. The design is vintage Tim Burton, and as wonderful as that implies, there are a few strong performances and Mia Wasikowska is beautiful enough that just getting to look at her for 108 minutes was rather good fun, but on the whole this is a missed opportunity; a confused, bitty and disappointing film from a director who should have been able to make this story into a true classic film.

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