Saturday, March 27, 2010

"For Both Can Issue a Note, Though it is Very Flat..."

I've loved Tim Burton's work for ages, and remain grateful for the darker, off-kilter visual style that he brought to the mainstream cinema in the 90s with "Batman" and "Edward Scissorhands." His visuals are always the highlight of his films, and wholly justify the existence of these projects all on their own, but Burton has a tendency to stumble when it comes to the stories.

His new version of "Alice in Wonderland" is no different. Rather than being the umpteenth retelling of the familiar Lewis Carroll story, Linda Woolverton's screenplay functions as an exercise in knowing nostalgia, setting the action about a decade after Alice's initial adventures. When a now nineteen-year-old Alice (Mia Wasikowska) stumbles upon "Underland" this time, after fleeing her pending engagement, she encounters many of the same characters and devices from the original that we all know and love. This frees the filmmakers to reference famous material, such as the Mad Tea Party, without being beholden to its source.

However this version of "Alice" is very much an action-adventure film, so a fairly formulaic quest story is immediately introduced with the Red Queen (Helena Bonham Carter) now a fearsome tyrant who is subjugating the populace after having stolen the crown from her good sister, the White Queen (Anne Hathaway). Alice is foretold by prophecy to slay the fearsome Jabberwocky, and must overcome her own fears and doubts to do so. Most of the other familiar characters, including the Mad Hatter (Johnny Depp), the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), the Caterpillar (Alan Rickman), the White Rabbit (Martin Sheen) and Tweedledee and Tweedledum (both Matt Lucas) now constitute a scrappy band of freedom fighters. It actually doesn't come off quite so silly as it sounds, though the involvement of animal warriors recalls the much better "Narnia" films that Disney also produces.

The imposition of such a straightforward plot on the proceedings requires the transmogrification of many of the characters into forms that are at once familiar yet totally alien. The Knave of Hearts (Crispin Glover), for example, is the Red Queen's main enforcer and a primary baddie in the story. He's a familiar archetype, the power-hungry, traitorous black knight who is rotten to the core, but this bears little resemblance to the Knave in the original "Alice." Probably the most drastic change was made to the Mad Hatter, who by virtue of being played by headliner Johnny Depp, has now become a romantic hero and tragic soul. Proper names are given to one and all in addition to the usual descriptive titles, which dims a little of their shine. That all of these characters come across as fairly believable must be credited to top-notch performances given by the cast all around.

The bare bones plotting also gains immeasurably from Tim Burton's visuals. After some disastrous CGI in "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory" and "Sweeney Todd," his work in "Alice in Wonderland" is a huge leap forward. Frame after frame is stuffed to the gills with beautiful Wonderland imagery, all lovingly designed and executed. There are dozens of little references and asides for fans of Carroll's work and the earlier "Alice" adaptations, such as the talking flowers, rocking-horse flies, playing card armies, and the obligatory shot of the pale crescent moon tipping over on its side to become the Cheshire Cat's smile. And there are a few moments where Burton lets a little macabre humor slip through, often involving monkeys. Some of these images go by so fast, it's a shame. I'm sure this version of "Alice in Wonderland" would make a much better picture book than an actual film.

In the end, I'm of two minds about the film. On the one hand, as a reimagining of the "Alice" story, it avoids the worst excesses that other modern productions have indulged in. Though its storyline is darker, it's perfectly safe for children and retains a lot of humor and charm. On the other hand, the dialogue is remarkably lazy, to the point where some of Carroll's best lines are appropriated to punctuate emotional moments completely out of context. "Why is a raven like a writing desk?" is actually echoed between Alice and the Hatter throughout the film and is supposed to come off as poignant upon the last repetition when they're making their farewells. There's also the matter of the ending, which is a completely implausible bungle once Alice returns to the real world.

Also, I can't help feeling that there were a lot of missed opportunities. "Alice" uses only the most iconic and popular Wonderland characters and ignored others that would have made more sense in the context of the story that they were telling. The White Knight, for example, would have made a nice Old Master figure for Alice. The cynical Gryphon would have been a more appropriate doomsayer than the Dormouse. And finally, how on earth did we get the Red Queen as the major antagonist without the film dropping at least a reference to the Red Queen's Race?

Perhaps some of these issues will be addressed in the sequel, because it's almost a certainty that there will be one thanks to the obscene amount of money this film is making now, Tim Burton or no. Will they call it "Through the Looking Glass," or perhaps the more traditional "Alice in Wonderland 2"?

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