March 6, 2010

Alice In Wonderland (03/06/2010)

Lettergrade: B-

NOTE: I wrote a follow-up entry on the movie on 10/20/2010 that can be found here.

Tim Burton's live action / motion capture Alice In Wonderland is not a re-interpretation of Lewis Carroll's 1865 novel "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland", nor of its 1872 sequel, "Through the Looking-Glass, And What Alice Found There," nor of the Jabberwocky poem that surfaced a few years after that. Instead, it invents an entirely new story that takes place after all those, where Alice, now 19, returns to Wonderland, finds that it is a burnt out shell of what it used to be, and has to kick some serious ass in order to make things right.

I must say I felt a certain amount of disappointment once I was told that this is what the movie was going to be. Although I have a soft spot for 1985's Return To Oz (in which an older Dorthy returns to a post apocalyptic Oz with a similar mission), that movie drew from the imaginative books that Frank Baum himself had written - specifically, second and third Oz books: "The Marvelous Land of Oz" and "Ozma of Oz" - and made use of a number of new characters and scenarios that were not part of the beloved 1939 MGM movie at all. Burton's Alice, by contrast, simply takes some of the Wonderland gang that you maybe kinda-sorta remember and plugs them into an epic adventure that is more in the vein of the Lord Of The Rings and Narnia movies.

This new version starts off with a great deal of charm and imagination before hitting a serious sag for a bit, and then finally concluding in a somewhat poetic, almost beautiful way. Although I remember feeling a little bored / annoyed midway through, I guess my overall opinion is that it is worth the trip as long as your attachment to the source material isn't that strong. Nevertheless, Burton's flick, while it seems to miss some opportunities, is mostly enjoyable.

I'm not that familiar with the Lewis Carroll writings myself, honestly, and the 1951 Disney cartoon along with the various TV movie versions are but fuzzy memories. Several clips from the 1976 version starring Kristine DeBell used to get frequent play on my computer, but I'm pretty sure that at least one key component of that version departed from what's in the books.

It's the latest film to be released in 3D (irking Avatar's James Cameron, who felt that Alice prematurely pushed his picture out of 3D theaters, crippling its potential to gross even more obscene amounts of money than it already has, apparently). I think Burton used the motion capture technology the right way. He did build sets and had a lot of real actors to work with, setting it apart from Avatar which felt more like a big cartoon for long segments. All-digital characters like Cheshire Cat and Absolem (the caterpillar), seem that much more real as a result. Others like Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen and the irreplaceable Crispin Glover as the Knave Of Hearts, look like themselves, but have been stretched and twisted in post production to have exaggerated features. Others still, like the Mad Hatter, don't require any digital augmentation at all, but blend seamlessly into the world.

I will lodge the complaint that I walked away from this picture without much of a sense of what Carroll's books were really trying to be about, or what the characters who appeared in them were meant to represent. I always thought, for example, that the Mad Hatter was a mere side-character in the original story, but since it's Burton regular Johnny Depp playing him, he claims a huge amount of the film's screentime, and his face is all over the advertising (curiously, Mia Wasikowska, who plays Alice, is not). And for that matter, I question the wisdom of having Alice go back to a devastated Wonderland which has a very conspicuous shortage of Wonder.

The movie also spends way too much time on at least one red herring: Whether or not the White Rabbit has lured the correct Alice back to Wonderland. My problem with this is that it's a mystery that's not a mystery at all if you think about it for more than 4 or 5 seconds. Is she the real Alice? Well, she has vague memories of being there before, so we can assume that the answer is yes almost without question. It's not like the movie is going to have us spend 90 minutes with her, then introduce another character that we haven't seen before at the last minute and have her save the day.

Around 1996's Mars Attacks! or so, I started to feel that Tim Burton has approximately zero story sense. If he's handed a good script and is smart enough not to change it, he can do quite well (resulting in movies like Ed Wood). More often than not, though, they turn out like 2005's Charlie And The Chocolate Facotry, in that the films can be enjoyable for a time and there's plenty to admire on a visual / design level, but they tend to reach a point where the story and drama both flat-line, sometimes never to recover. Again, Alice is slightly above average for him, but he's dealing with stories that have been read and loved by children for roughly 150 years now. What was so wrong with them that he decided to do an action-packed coda rather than a skillful retelling?

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