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Alice In Wonderland

Posted by Cantankerous Panda on March 29, 2010

ALICE IN WONDERLAND (2010)

My relationship with Tim Burton has turned into a love/hate one. I am sad about that. The thing is, I always loved Tim Burton. His classic films are pretty, well, classic. No one will ever convince me that the first two Batman movies (Batman and Batman Returns) were anything short of awesome–and for those of you who hate Batman Returns, I have four words for you: Michelle Pfeiffer as Catwoman. Check and mate. Beetlejuice is one of my favourite films, one that I even wrote a research paper about in college (the paper was about the film’s score, and there was very little research to be found on Danny Elfman’s work, so I had to figure a lot of it out myself).  Edward Scissorhands is considered by many to be Burton’s best work. And I even enjoyed his bizarre comedic romp of a film, Mars Attacks! There are many films of his that I have enjoyed.  Sadly, Tim’s recent films have not really made it onto my list of “Tim Burton Classics”. I enjoyed Big Fish for what it was, but I haven’t been itching to watch it again. Sweeney Todd was fine, as well, and his handling of the material was absolutely fitting for the subject matter, but it’s also not a film I wish to see again. I don’t quite know where Alice falls on my list.

I want to first say that I did not see this film in 3-D. I think 3-D is pretty much a waste. It’s not only bad for your vision, but it’s also a distraction from the film. It’s a gimmick, and it’s unnecessary. It also seems to really detract from the director’s vision, for the most part. What I mean by that is that when a director is thinking in terms of making this a 3-D movie, you can almost see the thought process behind a number of the sweeping shots and the extra images that make their way across the screen. It ruins the staging of the shot, and it makes the direction appear sloppy. So, I did not see this in 3-D. I suspect that I would have been just as annoyed if I had seen it in 3-D as I was watching it in 2-D, as everything that was clearly meant to be for the benefit 3-D was made blatantly obvious in a distracting and detracting manner. I have never had a problem with Burton’s direction before; this was the first time I as distinctly bothered by his decisions. The moment I saw the rocking-horsefly and whatever other magical insect flutter across the screen and hover in the center-left of the shot, I knew that there were some terrible mistakes that Burton made with this film. That was clearly done in a way that screamed “THIS IS FOR A 3-D MOVIE” and it immediately upset me. OK, now that I have taken care of the non-3-D disclaimer, we can continue…

Other than the sweeping “watch things zoom past you in 3-D” shots and obvious “pop-out” elements in a number of shots, Burton delivered on a pretty typical level. In case you haven’t seen a trailer for this film, Burton employs his “candied technicolor” palette instead of his trademark gothic colour scheme. I don’t have a problem with his brighter films– they all still have elements of darkness (well, except Big Fish, really), and they are all still plenty bizarre. Alice in Wonderland is less glaring than his last colourful venture, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, though not by much. Even though it’s not my favourite palette for Burton’s work, and I really feel that the 3-D aspect really hurt his artistic integrity, I think this is my favourite film of his from this past decade (and, sadly, that doesn’t say much for him).

The constructs behind Alice’s return to Wonderland actually are quiet reasonable and well-thought-out: Alice, now 19, has reoccurring dreams that feature certain characters from Wonderland. She doesn’t know what they mean, but they are always the same and she constantly dreams of them. She doesn’t believe them to be real, but she enjoys entertaining the fancy. Her father was a man who thought that some amount of “insanity” (as in, creativity and odd thoughts) was a great thing to possess, and Alice is quickly identified as a non-conformist with her head in the clouds. Upon being proposed to by a boy with whom she wants little to do, she runs off after a vision from one of her dreams (I’ll give you a hint– he’s late for a very important date) and falls down a rabbit hole, thus plunging her back into the world with which we are all too familiar. Of course, a lot can happen in 13 years, and Wonderland isn’t QUITE the same. While I don’t recall a White Queen (only the wicked Red Queen from the Disney animated film), basically all hell broke lose when her evil red-loving sister took over. The lovable creatures of Wonderland went to retrieve Alice because she was the hero foretold of in their prophecy. She was the one who would save them all, and they could recognize her from the drawings in the prophecy. See? That’s all fine and good.

I’m trying not to give much away (I ALWAYS says that, so maybe one day I’ll stop and we’ll just assume I’m not totally ruining movies for you all), but one major issue I had with this story is Alice’s refusal to accept her experiences as reality. I don’t mean that she clearly should know that she’s not having a dream immediately, but she repeatedly states that it is a dream and yet doesn’t seem to act in a way that indicates she believes it. She doesn’t want to do certain things because it’s “not who she is” or would feel wrong to her in such a dramatic way, but if it’s a dream and these “good friends” are so desperate for her to follow through, why doesn’t she just do it with the understanding that when she wakes up it will all disappear? The logical answer is that she clearly is fighting with herself and knows deep down that it’s not a dream. A dream may feel like it lasts forever, but you don’t often experience a full day, fall asleep, and then wake up and have another full day within a dream. And I mean a really full day. Dreams are funny in their non-linear ways; I can’t recall the last time I had a dream that really felt like reality, even if I didn’t realize I was in a dream. So having Alice reiterate the whole “I’m dreaming” thing just grew irritating. I suppose that’s a minor issue to have with the story, though.

Let’s get to the players. Mia Wasikowska, a relatively unknown actress (but who was in the first season of the HBO series In Treatment), was perfectly lovely as Alice. She definitely had the right look, and she is quite a good actress. I thought she captured the adventurous and free-spirited characteristics of Alice quite well, and portrayed her strengths and weakness with ease. Johnny Depp, a usual player in Burton’s playground, played the Mad Hatter. I wasn’t sold on this version of the Mad Hatter, at first, because it was so different from the Mad Hatter in the Disney version. However, I grew to love this take on the character, and Depps portrayal was not only hilarious but totally in sync with the idea of his deterioration after the hostile take-over. And, unlike his stint as Willy Wonka, I managed to get over the fact that this was, indeed, Johnny Depp just playing a strange character in terribly unflattering hair, make-up and wardrobe; I bought him as the Mad Hatter, and loved him for it. He did look a little like Elijah Wood with that gap in his teeth, though. Helena Bonham-Carter, Tim Burton’s significant other and mother of his child (which makes her another “frequent flier” in his cast), played the bobble-headed Red Queen. I say “bobble-headed” because that’s literally how she is portrayed– Burton used CGI to make her head comically large and round for her body. We all know HBC can play wretched and wicked, and I did appreciate the idea that sisterly rivalry was a part of her awfulness (and her desperate desire to be loved) but I grew wary of the way she shouted “Off with his/her head!” It was so robotic and awful. Another nitpick, I know.

So many performances! Let’s see… Crispin Glover plays the Red Queen’s right-hand man, Stayne, and he’s as creepy as ever. I mean, it’s Crispin Glover. He’s notorious weird. I really liked his heart-shaped eye-patch in conjunction with his arrow-shaped scar that ran beneath it. That was a nice touch. Anyway, great casting choice of a creepy guy to play a creepy character. I wasn’t on board with Anne Hathaway as the White Queen, though. While I get that she’s got that “America’s Sweetheart” kind of thing going for her, I didn’t think she was particularly convincing as the soft, dainty, ever-loving White Queen. She did pull off some of the more comical aspects of the character, though, such as her repulsion at all things icky, but she just felt off overall. And I don’t like how Burton had her showcase her “grace” with her weird sweeping arm movements. Overkill isn’t even the word to describe it– it was just bizarre.

And now, voice actors! The Cheshire Cat KILLED me because I couldn’t place his voice for the life of me, but it was Stephen Fry and that makes perfect sense (it crossed my mind to write “purrfect”, but I promptly slapped myself across the face and moved on). The Cheshire Cat was illustrated in a much creepier was than in the original film, but I think that Fry’s sleazily charming, almost seductive tone worked well with the character. He definitely was a high point of the film. Alan Rickman’s incredibly distinctive voice shot out from behind a cloud of smoke and I immediately smiled. What a perfect choice for the snobby, belittling, know-it-all critter known to us as the Blue Caterpillar. Absolutely fitting. For those of you who do not know, and you should be humiliated if so, Alan Rickman was the baddie in the first Die Hard film, and has appeared in many others, including Dogma. He is wondrous. Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in The Queen and David Frost in Frost/Nixon, played the White Rabbit, which is also a good casting choice. Sheen’s voice is a bit nasally and he definitely has the panicked voice down. Matt Lucas was creepy as both Tweedledee and Tweedledum, mostly because of the CGi and odd-shaped bodies, but he also portrayed kinda lovable characters in their own way. Still really disturbing to look at, though. Oh, and there’s a little vocal “appearance” by one Christopher Lee. Yeah, that’s pretty awesome.

Danny Elfman delivered what I would call a totally competent score. It had the usual Elfman elements sweeping throughout, and it fit the mood and tone of the film well. I don’t consider it a very memorable score, but it is distinctly his and it absolutely worked. I love his music, and there’s a “song”, of sorts, that sounds ever so much like his old band, The Oingo Boingo. I will say that there’s a song that plays over the closing credits that is NOT done by Elfman and is a terrible, terrible piece of music. It doesn’t match the movie OR Burton. It’s like some teen pop song or something awful of that sort. Ugh. Why, Burton? WHY?!

Wow, that was a lot to cover. I guess it’s down to the wrap-up…

Do I recommend this film? Yes, for those who can enjoy a movie that is, essentially, a kids movie and not expect a huge amount out of it. It’s enjoyable enough, but it is pretty predictable and even silly, at times. It’s certainly not Burton’s best work, but also not his worst. I was a bit disappointed, but not terribly since I had heard some pretty bad things about it. Do not go into this movie with high hopes, though– it’s not going to totally spin the world of Alice around or do anything groundbreaking with that idea. Linda Woolverton wrote an OK screenplay based off Lewis Carroll’s books, but it wasn’t stellar by any means. I think the language sounded pretty good, but I haven’t read the book in a long time so I could be way off. Anyway, go if you like bright and whimsical storyscapes, a kooky-looking (and acting) Johnny Depp, crazy Elfman scores, and bizarre Burton wonderlands, and you don’t mind someone taking a number of artistic liberties with the original story. Don’t go if you’re looking for a masterpiece or a totally new take on Alice (such as something much darker than what is offered).

I hope my review has helped you figure it out for yourselves. I realize I’m having trouble giving strong yes/no recommendations lately, and it’s clearly because I’ve been so ambiguous about how I feel with a number of recent films. I almost feel too picky, but I don’t think that’s it. I just think I haven’t seen anything I really loved in the past few weeks or so. Hopefully this will be remedied soon :).

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14 Responses to “Alice In Wonderland”

  1. Leaf said

    Great review! About the 3D bit, it seems like many movies today are just all about eye candy (Think Avatar, and soon to be Clash of the Titans), which is pretty disappointing. I really havent seen the movie, so I cant say much about it. (I’ll probably watch it after it comes out on DVD like I always do though :P)

    Also, I was surprised that Helena Bonham-Carter played the queen lady, I always thought it was Natalie Portman.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      Ha– maybe the CGI made HBC look more like Natalie? I don’t think Natalie Portman would have been a good choice, so I’m glad it wasn’t her. And I agree about the eye-candy, but I don’t find it satisfying :P.

  2. Fyorl said

    The Cheshire Cat and the Hatter were definitely my favourite. And you missed the important part about the White Queen – that she’s pretty hot.

    I know this is a little random, but I also liked ‘Uhm’s curtain-dress.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      See, I didn’t think the look worked for Anne Hathaway. I think she looked odd. Perhaps it was because everything about her was pale and then you had these terribly stark, big, black eyebrows. She just didn’t do it for me.

      And I think that Um’s curtain dress was my favourite of her dresses, as well.

  3. Harry Limon said

    It’s a toss-up whether or not I’ll see this movie, since I have Love/Hate/Dislike/Disappointment relationship with Tim Burton’s movies. Leaving aside whether or not this unofficial sequel to Alice is up to Carroll’s love of logical paradoxes, Burton’s weakness as a dramatist reminds me of David Mamet’s all-caps advice to screenwriters:

    THE JOB OF THE DRAMATIST IS TO MAKE THE AUDIENCE WONDER WHAT HAPPENS NEXT. *NOT* TO EXPLAIN TO THEM WHAT JUST HAPPENED, OR TO *SUGGEST* TO THEM WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

    These days Burton’s work just makes me wonder what he was on when he came up with the art design of his latest movie, not what happens in it.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      Well, if it’s advice to screenwriters then it’s not Burton’s doing. Yes, it’s his prerogative to choose good scripts and/or make the script work for him, but he didn’t write this one. But I agree with you a bit on the last sentiment, anyway :P.

  4. richardsblah said

    Good review, Panda. I, too, have a strange relationship with Tim Burton. I find him frustrating because, for such an imaginative guy, he always seems to end up doing other people’s ideas. He hasn’t directed an original story of his own since since Edward Scissorhands! Everything else has been either adaptations or ‘re-imaginings’ (and I’ll never forgive him for coming up with that phrase) of the ideas of others. Lazy fucker!

    I loved Big Fish. It had me weeping like a child, I must confess. While Planet of the Apes had me foaming at the mouth. Where did the frigging horses come from, anyway? And did you hear his explanation for the ending on the DVD commentary? Drivel!

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      Oh, don’t get me started on Planet of the Apes! It was TERRIBLE. Ugh. Though HBC looked a lot like Michael Jackson, which I thought was terribly amusing.

      I echo your frustration, though I am not so bothered by his “re-imaginings” in some ways. I listed a bunch of his films that I liked, and some of them were adaptations. I think he can do that stuff fairly well, and he comes up with some pretty original concepts, both with characters and with his “re-imaginings” (I went to the Burton exhibition at the MoMA in NYC, and it was FANTASTIC to see his ideas and sketches and such). Although… was Mars Attacks really an unoriginal story? I don’t know for sure.

      Thanks for the feedback–I’ve missed your comments! I’m planning on writing about The Ghost Writer, A Philadelphia Story, and The Proposal (yes, I know, it’s ridiculous but it’s actually a decent rom-com, so it gets a review) in the near future :).

      • richardsblah said

        I wondered why HBC looked so familiar in that movie, lol. Now I know. 😉

        Mars Attacks was based on a series of American bubble gum cards, so in that respect, it wasn’t a Burton idea. There’s no doubt that he’s an imaginative guy who can bring something fresh to any project he takes on. Until The Dark Knight came along, Batman Returns was my favourite of that series. But I just wish he’d put one of his own ideas on the screen more often, rather than his take on someone else’s.

        I’ll keep a look out for those reviews. I watch around three or four movies a week, so I really should write more of my own. I just watched The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and loved it.

        • Cantankerous Panda said

          Haha, glad I could help with the creepy/weird HBC familiarity. It killed me when I saw the movie. Soooooo disturbing.

          Wow I didn’t know that about Mars Attacks! That is kinda awesome. But how loosely based was it? I mean, I don’t know much about bubble gum card series, but I’m wondering how much story and detail could have been gleaned from that material. A lot of things are derivative, of course. But I get what you’re saying– less original. How about Corpse Bride?? I haven’t seen that one, though, so I really know little about it :P.

          Ohhhh I’ll have to add The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo to my list! I just finished watching The Box, which will NOT get a favourable review, sadly. I try to watch a lot of movies a week, as well, but I’m just slow to write them up :P. Keep me posted about your reviews!

  5. Saurus said

    I saw it in 3D a while ago, the effects really were lame. It was all WHOA ITS POPPING OUT!, and thats stupid. I also hated the reminder every thirty seconds that Alice is not the right Alice (we know she is), that this is a dream (we know it isnt), and that she will slay the Jabberwockee (fucking of course she will). I thought it was stupid.

    I would add, though, that 3D isnt bad when done right. Gimmicky 3D, where things are getting thrown at the audience is terrible. Sometimes its great for immersion – How to Train Your Dragon is the best movie ive seen this year, not only because it was amazing, but because the 3D was subtle and never gimmicky.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      Hey– thanks for the comment!

      I agree with you on those aspects of the script, and I’m SO glad I didn’t see it in 3D because it totally seemed like it would be incredibly annoying. Some of the conversations revolving around these repeated ideas made sense, but after while it was far too repetitive and just silly.

      As for 3D “done well”, I am sure that there are movies that do not abuse it so horribly, and I can appreciate the novelty of a 3D movie (let’s not forget that 3D, in general, is not new, of course), but my thing is that it’s being overused at this point and it’s often too gimmicky. I don’t know that I find it necessary or even THAT beneficial for a film. Can it add to a movie-watching experience in some instances? I’m sure it can, and while I haven’t seen How To Train Your Dragon, it sounds like a good example. However, the movie would be just as enjoyable without the 3D, and there’s something about the combination of the glasses + the eye strain + the general gimmick of the renewed 3D rage that just turns me off. I’ll probably willingly see a movie in 3D only if I hear good things about the use of 3D. Otherwise, I’ll try to avoid it as much as possible :P.

  6. Alice said

    Last year around July I found a trailer on rottentomatoes.com and swore myself I’d watch this in 3D on my birthday with some friends. So I did.
    It was my first 3D film and I agree, daaamn that stuff gives you a nasty headache, already within 45 minutes. Afterwards I also didn’t really think the 3D added to the film, the effects were a bit pompous and at the same time the landscapes felt kind of empty and flat compared to the 3D effects on the foreground. Something irksome that was more my own fault than that of the film was that I kept trying to focus my eyes on ‘naturally’ blurry objects on the screen. So annoying.
    Overall the visual part of the film was enjoyable, though, especially all those little character and element designs. (I agree with Fyorl; I WANT THAT DRESS.)

    Personally I found the movie watchable, but terribly predictable at some times. Especially the prophecy part started to really annoy me at some point. I don’t really have to say much of the actors other than that I was relieved the mad hatter didn’t take in a role as big as I feared for.
    Hum, what else do I have to say.. I like your review, but I think it’s not quite right to compare it to Disney’s original film (not that you did it often, really) since it’s like.. a wholly different production and atmosphere and tons of other Alice in Wonderland films with different intepretations too have been made, but they were just by far not as recognized as Disney’s one.

    • Cantankerous Panda said

      I’m sorry that the 3D experience was seriously unhappy. I sympathize, though. I feel that way about 3D movies, mostly, but this one seemed like it would be egregious.

      I did like some of Alice’s costumes, especially that one dress in particular that Fyorl mentioned :P.

      I don’t think you understood my comparisons accurately, though. From what I recall from my review, I brought up my past experiences with the Disney film because that was how I normally viewed anything “Alice” related, as many others probably did. It’s hard to undo those ‘norms’, and I address how either I didn’t remember certain things from the original, which was meant to be “I don’t know if this was what happened in the ‘before'”, and how I was used to the Disney norm but I was swayed to accept what Burton gave us. The thing is, this film doesn’t try to redo the first film. It works off the first, and it is, in fact, a Disney production. This film essentially uses the Disney animated film as background, and also as a reference point (especially noticeable with the talking flowers that looked like CG versions of the ones from the cartoon). So, I have to disagree with you about the comparison, because the film not only draws from the animated feature, but it builds upon it and comes from the very same people who offered us the 1951 original (from a company standpoint, that is–the Disney “ownership”). However, I agree that there are different interpretations of where to go with this story, and I’ve seen some other adaptations from the “Alice” subject matter. And I don’t fault Burton for going in a different direction than the cartoon. I mostly used the comparisons to talk about my own biases due to my memories of the first film, which naturally frames how I view new additions or adaptions of the same general storyscape.

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