Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Review: Alice in Wonderland

Alice in Wonderland


I had to think for quite some time about the rating that Alice and Wonderland would receive. Was it really bad enough to warrant less than two stars? I thought for a while, attempting to come up with reasons that would endear this film to me slightly, and, quite frankly, I drew a blank. It's an entertaining enough film on its own terms, but it's certainly not a good film. And, honestly, if removed from 'its own terms,' which is to say with friends in a crowded theater, I don't think I would have enjoyed myself here. Hence the one-and-a-half stars. The half is for the enjoyment that it offers while in the company of others.
I think it's quite safe to say that Tim Burton has hit a creative rut. With the exception of the muted, lovely Corpse Bride, Burton hasn't made an original (aka not a sequel, franchise, or previous work) film since Ed Wood in 1994. Nor has his style changed in any discernible fashion. No, let me rephrase that: his macabre, Gothic affectations, which once felt fresh and innovative, have since congealed into something stilted, dull, and altogether devoid of life. Alice in Wonderland is, without a doubt, one of his most generic, lifeless films yet.
Mind you, I've never found myself squarely in the Tim Burton camp. I'll admit that he can make wonderful films when he wants to (though he hasn't wanted to since the early 90s), but, generally speaking, he's not a very interesting film-maker. I've always thought that Burton would be an endlessly fascinating painter or sculptor: the images and designs he conjures are extraordinary. But is film really the correct medium for him to manifest his images? Yes, he creates bizarre, surreal tableaus, but he rarely marries them to any form of film-making style. Tim Burton, technically speaking, fits the traditional definition of an auteur by virtue of his distinct visual style, endlessly repeating themes, and slave-like dedication to perfecting his 'type' of movie. Yet, for all that, I've always found him to be lacking the cinematic bravura and visual panache that most other anointed auteurs possessed. In laymans' terms? Tim Burton makes pretty pictures, but he doesn't make interesting movies. His compositions are tedious, his bag of film techniques woefully limited, and his structure repetitive. Every now and again, Burton uses his few tricks to makes something wonderfully compelling. Alice is not one of those circumstances.
I suppose what surprised me more than the lack of directorial flair was how uninspired I felt Wonderland's design to be. On the surface, it's all dazzling, but if one looks for a bit, it's all too easy to see the same basic machine that labor behind every Tim Burton world, and I, for one, am getting a little bit tired of them. The decision to shoot this film almost entirely on green-screen doesn't help either. I don't have a problem with CGI when necessary, but it's all too easily used to make up for laziness.
Speaking of laziness, I confess that I find myself less than thrilled by the acting involved. The notable exception is Helena Bonham Carter as the Red Queen, who is by turns petulant and intimidating. She alone captures the right amount of crazy that the film needs. I suppose I can't be too hard on Mia Wasikowska: the role of Alice has always been one of a passive viewer, so I guess I shouldn't fault her for being nothing more than politely confused throughout the film. Anne Hathaway is likable as always, but skin deep. And Johnny Depp. God, Johnny Depp. I regard Depp as one of the better working actors, whose chameleon-like abilities allow him to completely and believable immerse himself in any role. Readers, I've been shown what happens when Johnny Depp takes it too far. Never mind that every now and again he adopts a Scottish brogue only to drop it in favor of a silly lisp. He just doesn't feel...authentic. I know, I know, he's the Mad Hatter, he's not authentic, he's mad. But I never believed for a second that I was watching anything other than Johnny Depp flop around with metric tons of makeup. There was no character: only a celebrity seeing how goofy he could get before his producers committed suicide.
And...that dance. That goddamn dance. The moment in which the movie becomes a parody of itself. The moment in which the movie gives the finger to the audience and gleefully jumps off the rails. Like the whole third act, really. Was a large battle scene, complete with a Lord-of-the-Rings-inspired catapult, really necessary? Complete with punny one-liners? Anyone who argues for the dazzling originality of Alice's vision must tell me how this battle scene, looking for all the world like a low-rent Narnia movie, possibly serves to further Burton's singular achievement. Because it feels like desperation to me. No, not desperation. Apathy. This whole damn movie reeks of apathy. Apathy in Mediocreland. New title. Go nuts.


  1. I respectfully disagree on almost every point. I had a fantastic time watching it. I thought it deviated nicely from Burton's usual style in appearance and general tone, and I really enjoyed the visual aspects. I thought it more akin to Dave McKean's images in Mirrormask than any of Burton's recent works.
    The story was as simple as they come, and crazy amounts of whimsical. It certainly wasn't original, and I don't think it intended, or especially needed, to be. I know I wasn't expecting anything original when I bought the ticket for a movie related to one of the most well-known fantasies in modern literature.
    As far as the acting goes, I thought it was generally good - they were all playing caricatures, of course, and did so well. Of course Helena Bonham Carter was brilliant, no surprise there, but I also enjoyed Anne Hathaway quite a lot - the way she composed her body and voice worked so well for the near-parody of the 'good queen' that she was doing. And I had quite the opposite experience with Depp, as well - the fluctuation between Scottish accent and lisp threw me off a bit, and he certainly hammed it up in places, but I had to remind myself at several points in the film that it was Johnny Depp playing him.
    As far as the third act goes, I thought the whole battle scene was fairly unimportant. It was just one of those things that happens in most fantasy movies - big ol' battle, etc. They didn't even especially focus on it, outside of a few shots of the main and secondary characters doing their thing. And the dance... Okay, the dance was weird, and a little uncomfortable. But it was also silly.
    It was a silly film. Maybe that's why I enjoyed it so much - goodness knows I love silly things. Or maybe it was the girl-power 'fuck you' to the restrictive Victorian era that I liked; That's a theme I've been particularly interested in of late. Or maybe it's because I've never seen the original Disney cartoon all the way through, and I've yet to read much Carroll, so this was my first real look at that world outside of Kingdom Hearts. But it was simply a pleasure to watch, and it left my imagination lots to play with. I don't know much about cinema, but from the perspective of a layman and a writer, it was a thoroughly enjoyable, nonsensical, almost absurdist romp, and I had fun with it.

  2. I have to take issue with a couple things you said here. A few times, you say things like 'that's just the way it is.' If it doesn't work, and it doesn't contribute to the fil at all, why does it have to be there? Admittedly, I prefer more lean styles of film-making, but, in my opinion, if something has no reason to be there (like the battle scene, for instance), it shouldn't be there. There's no 'that's just what happens.' No, no, it's not. Or it shouldn't be, anyway. And stepping in line with such tired cliches For no discernible reason is one of the reasons I don't like this movie. Also, you said you had to remind yourself that it was Johnny Depp playing the character. It doesn't matter who the actor is: if, while watching them perform, you have to consciously tell yourself that 'oh, it's just (insert actor here),' then the celebrity persona has eclipsed the actual performance, and that's wrong, no matter how you slice it. Johnny Depp shouldn't sacrifice character believability in the name of whatever paticular neurosis he feels like manifesting.
    I admit that my pretentious film-dickery knows no bounds, but I feel like that shouldn't hurt a film. I figure if, the more you know about movies, the less you like a film, then there's something just plain wrong.