Monday, June 28, 2010

Heeeeeeeere's Johnny!

There is a scene early on in Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland in which a young Alice (Mairi Ella Challen) confesses to her father (Marton Csokas) about her strange dreams and wonders aloud if she's crazy. Like a good father, he presses his hand to her forehead, takes it away, and morosely tells her that yes, she is quite bonkers. "But I'll tell you a secret. All the best people are."

And so there's the ultimate message of this movie, delivered in the first five minutes. It's actually not a bad message; How obvious is it that the greatest minds of any generation - Galileo, Einstein - often spurned social convention because they were so sure they were right? Alice's father Charles Kingsleigh is portrayed as such a person, one who wanted to reroute English trade routes around the world in such a way that defied logic, or at least the logic of his possible investors, who were sure he was mad. And so many years later after her father's death and when she's come of age, Alice (In Treatment's Mia Wasikowska) becomes one as well. Brought to a party to be proposed to by a charming if dunderheaded lord, Alice steals away from the party chasing a white rabbit that she recognizes from her dreams, only to fall down the rabbit hole and into the place she used to go where she dreamed, a place she called Wonderland.

Tim Burton may not ever have been a great director, but usually he's at least solid. However, he hasn't had a good film since the largely underrated Big Fish in 2003, and his last film, Sweeney Todd, was surprisingly uninspired. For the man who brought us Edward Scissorhands, the quality of his films has been surprisingly shaky. But one thing has always been consistent: his image. There's a dark moodiness to vision that's in all his films, and it's perfectly situated in this film in the place of Wonderland. For every dark, creepy forest, or the zaniness of the rabbit hole Alice falls into, there's just as much in the bright false-happiness of the Red Queen's (Helena Bonham Carter) castle, or the striking brightness of the castle of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). It's that visual element that Burton revels in, which is what made Scissorhands and others of his films such modern classics.

I'll talk about the special effects, first. Alice in Wonderland was advertised as being in available in 3D in most theaters but the DVD version was only in 2D. It's an odd choice by the industry to have these recent movies that succeeded in large part in the theaters to their 3D promotions (Avatar, Clash of the Titans) to not release them in 3D for home consumption. Is it the technology? Coraline was released last year on DVD in 3D but it was not exactly a bright success in that medium. Perhaps they're taking the "special edition" route. In six months 3D versions of these movies will be made available on DVD, when you're not even watching the edition you already OWN. Regardless, you can pretty much tell by watching the movie where the 3D is SUPPOSED to be. Am I relieved that I haven't seen the 3D edition? Yes. Unlike the story-lite Avatar, we don't need the 3D in Alice to distract us from the fact that there's no unreasonable plot to follow. We can enjoy the movie for what it is, not what it wants us to see.

Mia Wasikowska may be playing the eponymous Alice, but Johnny Depp gets top billing. Why? Name recognition, of course! This is Disney we're talking about, and they know what sells tickets isn't necessarily a great story or groundbreaking effects or even great acting, but in fact the quality of the names you hire. And so we have Depp, champion of both Burton and box office, placed in the relatively small role of Mad Hatter...relatively small until Burton re-sized the Hatter's role to much more than just a tea party. The Hatter is still mad, of course, but lucidly mad, rather than completely, bat-crazy insane. And he's a veritable ally to Alice against the Red Queen, who has taken over Wonderland since Alice last visited (dreamed) it. He used to be quite sane, and a talented dancer to boot (unfortunately, we're subjected to this inane dance by the movie's end). All in all, Depp is perfectly cast, as he creates quite the parallel to Alice's father's statement of the best people being insane. Many things are still kept from the books, for instance the tea party. He also frequently asks Alice how a raven is like a writers desk. In all, Depp is probably the best thing about the movie, and so most deservedly earned that top bill.

Other acting was good, if not as deep as Depp. Carter is very campy as the evil Red Queen, something of a combination of characters from the Lewis Carroll books: The Queen of Hearts from Alice in Wonderland and the Red Queen from Through the Looking Glass. Whether screaming to off someone's head or in somewhat a more calm scene, It's difficult to take the Red Queen too seriously, as most of the actual evil is better displayed by her underlings, most notably Stayne, the Knave of Hearts. Stayne is properly portrayed by Crispin Glover, and matches a Burton character to a T, complete with heart-shaped eye-patch. Anne Hathaway is actually sort of disappointing as the White Queen, a seemingly air-headed beleaguered monarch who dabbles in something resembling voodoo or necromancy for her powers. Whether the ditziness is real or a show for her supporters is never revealed, but nothing Hathaway does in this film is very important, unfortunate for the actress who garnered such deserved praise in Rachel Getting Married. With so much CGI, there were multiple voice-only roles that were cast, and Michael Sheen, Stephen Fry, Alan Arkin, Barbara Windsor, Paul Whitehouse and Timothy Spall all deserve credit for their excellent contributions, even is Spall's character, a bloodhound named Bayard, doesn't seem to be based on any character from the books. Finally, Wasikowska is charming and elegant as Alice, the straight woman in a bendy world. Alice never fits in in either world, as she's too screwy to fit in the normal standards of the real world, and Wasikowska does a good job of playing that up, consistently expressing confusion and slow understanding up until she has to convincingly play the part of hero and becomes a strong woman of conviction by the end. She's arguably the early break-out female performer of 2010 and we'll see if this translates to her getting promising work in the future, or if she'll be relegated to being one of Burton's "favorites" and only work regularly in his films. She's too good for that, but Depp is too and he went for years before Hollywood took him seriously.

So what's wrong with Alice in Wonderland? Well, it doesn't run overlong, but what ending there is falls flat. It's as if everyone working on the project finished this big elaborate final battle (on a chessboard, no less) and realized: "Oh, crap, we have to end this movie!" And so it's rushed and obvious and not a little silly, including even Depp's little stupid dance. This can be largely credited to screenwriter Linda Woolverton, who's resume (consisting of Disney animated films and kid shows) doesn't exactly scream for confidence. To wrap up the bad ending, the closing credits began with this awful song who's singer I thought sounded familiar, but I wasn't sure. Alice was sung by Avril Lavigne, and it's just as bad - worse even - as you would expect from any Avril Lavigne song. I mean, DAMN, that's a bad song. I'd rather listen to Kenny G end this film than ever hear Lavigne again.

For most of it's 108 minutes, Alice in Wonderland is as interesting, thought-provoking and wondrous vision of fantasy as you'll find in the theater these days, but the mediocre ending does all it can to ruin that experience for you. Not even great special effects or a star cast can save it, as it's ultimately another disappointing film for Burton's library. This in itself is hardly a surprise, but would it kill Tim to try an original idea for once, as in the past ten years only Corpse Bride wasn't based on someone else's story. If he's going to keep piggybacking onto other people's works, he needs to figure out a better way of telling it his way without the messes to which that inevitably leads. For the message it pertains and strong feminine lead, another director perhaps would have been better.

But this is Disney, and they need their name recognition.


Opinioness of the World said...

Great review as always, John!! So disappointing to hear that this wasn't as amazing as it could have been. But glad that Depp is in top form as always. Also I'm surprised that Hathaway isn't you so astutely pointed out her fabulous and heartbreaking performance in "Rachel Getting Married." I'm still curious to see it.

P.S. Love the review's title...gotta love a nod to more movies.

Gianni said...

Thanks for the feedback! I'd say for a $1 rental it's definitely worth a flier. And after you watch the movie, check out the special features for the "Hatter" short to see how Depp created his character, it's really quite impressive to see how his design really makes sense.

Opinioness of the World said...

Thanks, I'll def check it out! That reminds me of his inspiration for Captain Jack Sparrow...he said he was a drunk, gay Keith Richards.