Last of the Monster Kids

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Sunday, July 6, 2014

Director Report Card: Tim Burton (2010)

14. Alice in Wonderland

Once upon a time, Tim Burton probably would have made a pretty good adaptation of “Alice in Wonderland.” The director has a decent grasp on the absurd. His tendency to sneak darkness and weirdness into mainstream products makes you imagine a truly odd, and sometimes frightening, Wonderland. I’m picturing a blonde Winona Ryder exploring a Wonderland full of black-and-white spirals and creepy, stop-motion puppets based off of John Tenniel’s original illustrations. By 2010, sadly, that Tim Burton was gone. This “Alice in Wonderland” is, instead, a dispassionate action-fantasy flick made by a bored filmmaker.

“Alice” tries to have it both ways. It was sold as an adaptation of the classic story but is, instead, a sequel. Alice isn’t a little girl but a twenty year old woman, on the verge of adulthood. After fleeing her engagement party, she chases after the same White Rabbit and stumbles down the same strange hole in the ground. Despite having lived these events before, Alice goes through many of the familiar motions. There’s a slow-motion fall through an anti-gravity tunnel, a room where she shrinks and grows, a tea party with the Mad Hatter and the March Hare, a croquet game with flamingo clubs and hedgehog balls, and a meeting with a Cheshire Cat and a hooka smoking caterpillar. Ultimately, the film is telling a different story, where Alice is an action hero who has to save Wonderland from a tyrannical Red Queen and slay a fearsome Jabberwocky.

There have been many versions of “Alice in Wonderland” over the years: The Disney version, the Czech abstract version, the goth video game version, the anime version, the porno version. This appears to be the version of the story rolled through the Hollywood blockbuster machine, with as many as its eccentricities smoothed out as possible. This is most obvious in the story’s treatment of Alice herself. She’s given the bland character arc of a rebel buckling against conformity. Alice finds her own destiny at the end, as she must. This is odd since the rest of the movie is all about putting her on a pre-destined path. The film regurgitates the tired cliché of the Chosen One, the hero that will save the world as foretold in the ancient prophecy. This is an especially bad fit for Alice but the movie rolls with it anyway, mentioning the prophecy as many times as possible. The movie even gets her in a suit of armor, has her swinging a sword, and dropping an one-liner.

Wonderland and its inhabitants don’t survive the blanding process either. Wonderland itself is shockingly short on wonder. Instead, its grey and drab, a post-war world full of dead trees. The iconic characters are squeezed uncomfortably into established types. The Caterpillar becomes a Yoda-like wise old sage. The Red Queen is a shrieking super villain. The Jabberwocky is a generic dragon, that lumbers like a dinosaur and breathes lightening. The Dormouse is a sword wielding rogue. Worst of all, the Mad Hatter becomes Alice’s love interest, a truly gross decision. Save for some lame attempts to recreate Lewis Carrol’s nonsense prose, 2010’s “Alice in Wonderland” squeezes all the personality out of the source material.

Increasingly, the best things about Burton’s films are their incredible set design. Even “Planet of the Apes” had amazing sets. With “Alice in Wonderland,” the director gave up practical sets for CGI and green screens. This is not a good thing. So much of Wonderland is made in a computer that there’s little weight, grit, or plausibility to the setting. Characters leap around without any care for gravity or physics. Weirdly, despite the amount of money surely spent on it, the effects look very cheap. Worst then the green screen sets are the way live actors and CGI effects are awkwardly fused. Helena Bohnam Carter’s head is blown up to huge size and stuck on a tiny CGI body. Crispin Glover’s legs are stretched out. Matt Lucas’ face is plastered on two rotund, plastic-looking bodies. The effect is more off-putting then cutting edge.

The movie also widely participates in what I call “3D eye-gouging.” That’s a habit engaged in by most 3D flicks but more frequently in the modern day version of the technology. It’s when shit on screen is tossed directly at the viewer, a distracting and obnoxious attempt to remind the audience they’re watching a 3-D film. “Alice in Wonderland” tosses all sorts of things into the watcher’s face: Teacups, birds, lightening, swords, spears, hats, Jabberwockies and Bandersnatches. The movie does it so much that it ceases to be a natural part of the film and becomes a gimmick, continuously taking the watcher out of the film and reminding them they’re watching a movie.

In previous incarnations of the story, Alice was the only centering force in a chaotic, intentionally unfocused story. This “Wonderland” is far more stream-lined but Alice is still the calm center. The film seriously raised the profile of Mia Wasikowska. In a Hollywood overpopulated with British waifs, Wasikowska’s versatility and ability to endear an audience’s sympathy makes her stand out. Wasikowska is one of the best things about “Alice in Wonderland.” The script does not give her much to work with. Indeed, the character repeats the same cycle for most of the first half, bouncing between believing and not believing. Yet Wasikowska is always easy to watch. She winds up making the film far more likable then it would have been otherwise.

She’s certainly more likable then the film’s other major star. This movie marked the point where I officially became sick of Johnny Depp’s bullshit. After the “Pirates of the Caribbean” series made him a major star, the actor’s choices in roles have become less interesting. In “Alice,” he does his typical thing. He wears a ridiculous hat, hideous white face-paint, obviously artificial contact lens, fake teeth, and an awful, frizzy red wig. He switches randomly between accents, an aggressively irritating quirk. The film gives him a major role in the story, a move ill-suited to the character. Depp’s Mad Hatter isn’t particularly mad, playing on the same level as any of Burton’s other eccentric protagonists.

Even more aggravating, the film had the perfect Mad Hatter right there in the shape of Crispin Glover. Imagine how mad Glover’s hatter would have been. Instead, the actor plays the Red Queen’s primary henchman. Glover brings some of his trademark twitchy intensity to the part but he’s mostly going through the villainous steps. The film packs its supporting cast full of great character actors. None of them are given much to do. Stephen Fry’s quiet wit makes him an ideal Cheshire Cat. Alan Rickman’s dry tone is well-suited to the Caterpillar. Anne Hathaway’s trademark sunniness is a good fit for the irrepressibly positive White Queen. All the actors are well cast yet the script only has simple, cliched parts for them to play.

With the exception of Helena Bohnam Carter. Mrs. Tim Burton plays the part as shrill as possible. Despite being the film’s primary villain, the Red Queen is such a joke that you never buy her as a serious threat. The giant head gimmick is more bizarre then funny. The character would be the worst thing about the film if it wasn’t for one specific moment: The Fudderwacking. Jesus Christ, the Fudderwacking. The Mad Hatter celebrates the good guys’ victory by breakdancing, essentially. The film stops dead to showcase this. It is easily the nadir of Tim Burton’s career which is really saying something given his current state.

At least there’s some distinctively Burton-esque imagery here. Upon entering Wonderland, Alice sees a gnarled, grey forest with weird topiary animals rising above. The Tree of the Dead from “Sleepy Hollow” makes a cameo appearance not long after that. Those black and white stripes make an appearance, like in Twiddledee and Twiddledumb’s shirts. Much of the film could have been directed by anyone but at least Burton sneaked in enough of his usual trademarks to identify it as his own.

Despite not being very good, “Alice in Wonderland” made an astonishing amount of money. It’s actually Tim Burton’s most financially successful film, cracking the top ten list of highest grossing films. The film was such a big hit that it started a new trend of dark and gritty re-imaging of classic fairy tales. Just from Disney, the nearly identical “Oz: The Great and Powerful” and “Maleficent” are already out, with “Cinderella,” “Beauty and the Beast,” and “Alice in Wonderland 2” (which Burton is thankfully not directing) coming soon. I’m not even mentioning all the other similar projects that have come along. You can’t explain the public’s taste. The film is just the latest example of Burton’s slow transformation into a boring studio workhorse. [Grade: C-]

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