Friday, March 5, 2010
If you’ve never read Lewis Carroll’s “Alice in Wonderland” then you may enjoy Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland” (opening March 6 throughout San Diego and at Edwards Mira Mesa in IMAX 3D).
At the advance screening I went to, the radio station brought some people up for a contest and not a single one of the contestants could name the author of “Alice in Wonderland.” So if they represent the target audience, then the film is likely to do well.
Tim Burton and all the studio publicity make it abundantly clear that this film version of “Alice” is not intended to be Carroll’s “Alice.” Fine. I can accept that. But I’m not sure what it is that Burton wants to serve up in its place. We are told in the press materials, and to a lesser degree in the film, that this is a 19-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) who is returning to a “world she first encountered as a young girl, reuniting with her childhood friends.” But if she is returning we don’t get any sense of what happened before or that Alice is indeed reuniting with old friends or if anyone recalls that first encounter beyond Alice’s fuzzy dream memories. But what this does translate into is that almost nothing of Carroll’s original stories or vision, save for the character names and a few lines, is evident in Burton’s film.
Once again, Burton creates a films that is visually engaging and sometimes even dazzling. His film would make a lovely picture book. His use of CGI and 3D feels far fresher and more inventive than what James Cameron did with “Avatar.” Although the 3D in both films proves spotty in terms of how impressive it is to watch.
Burton does have a truly clever visual sensibility. Working again with cinematographer Dariusz Wolski (they teamed on “Sweeny Todd”), Burton creates a dark, ominous, and mesmerizingly surreal world. Wolski created something similar but grimmer in “Dark City,” and he has a flair for creating a world that can be both dark and seductive. Burton and Wolski are both aided by production designer Robert Stromberg (whose credits include “Avatar” and “There Will Be Blood”). This filmmaking team creates a world for Alice that is visually dynamic. There are often things sprinkled throughout the frame to catch our eye. So the images are perversely sumptuous and make the film fun to watch.
Yet Burton has lost the ability to tell a story. His penchant for weirdness is clearly on display but weirdness without a good story or compelling characters can get wearisome. He balanced weirdness and good storytelling in films such as “Edward Scissorhands” and “Ed Wood,” but has been less successful since. In “Alice,” he banks on viewers being familiar with Carroll’s characters – Alice, the Mad Hatter, the Red Queen, etc. – so that they feel a connection but then he and writer Linda Woolverton do little to add to these characters or to create any kind of clever narrative. Woolverton’s previous credits are Disney cartoons (“The Lion King,” “Beauty and the Beast”) and I think she displayed more storytelling skills in that 2D realm. “Alice” feels more like a disconnected set of vignettes, each conceived to highlight some gag or effect. At the end, you feel a little like saying so what was all that about then? And the answer seems perversely connected to capitalism and trade. Burton has tried to turn this into a female empowerment tale but in the end Alice just seems to want to be a successful CEO and that’s a bit disheartening.
Since Johnny Depp took on the role of the Mad Hatter that character has been pushed to the forefront but for no other reason than it is Johnny Depp. He is kind of the romantic interest (but that is developed late and in an off-handed manner) and a bit of a guide but mostly just an oddity to stare at. I’m starting to feel that Depp and Burton should be banned from working together until they have more than just a weird looking character as the goal of their collaboration. And the Michael Jackson freaky dance at the end of the film is downright disturbing. Helena Bonham Carter, with a big, bulbous head, is funny as the Red Queen and I wish we had more of Stephen Fry’s Cheshire Cat and Alan Rickman’s Caterpillar.
“Alice in Wonderland” (PG for fantasy action/violence involving scary images and situations, and for a smoking caterpillar – yes that description is from the MPAA, “A smoking caterpillar” is cause for alarm) has pushed “Avatar” out of the IMAX and many of the 3D theaters and for that I’m grateful. It’s also a dark and delightful film to look at. But I was really hoping for more of Carroll’s sense of literary nonsense, verbal dexterity, and fantasy. Burton is well equipped to capture the fantastical elements of Carroll’s literary world, yet he is not a director known for his skill with language. Thus, the visually adept Burton is ill-suited to bring the word play of Carroll to the screen. So Burton’s film adaptation/reimagining of Carroll’s stories looks great but feels hollow. I am reminded of Caroll’s quote: “If you don't know where you are going, any road will get you there.” Burton’s “Alice” doesn’t seem to know where it’s going so it takes any road. If you just want to go along for the ride then you probably will enjoy it.
Companion viewing: “Jabberwocky,” “The Adventures of Baron Munchausen,” “Dreamchild”