Alice In Wonderland is the greatest film of the year, based on the trailer. A flick that we THINK we will love, and have already CONVINCED ourselves that we love, before having to, or needing to, see it. It seems like an easy sell, right? You got Tim Burton, Mr. Hot Topic, a parody of his former self, taking on the wild, weird, world of Lewis Carroll. We even get Johnny “surprise, surprise” Depp in the (sort of) lead role as the (supposedly) crazy, cooky, zany, wacky, insane-in-the-membrane, effeminate comedy tornado known as the Mad Hatter. Can’t go wrong. Right?
Admitting that one has never read classic literature is always tough, but this reviewer will do it. I’ve never read any of Lewis Carroll’s works, with the exception of “Jabberwocky.” Like many of my fellow Generation-Pepsi brethren, my biggest forays into “Alice” were via Disney, The Disney channel, that TV movie, and any and all “eat me, drink me” pop culture references. Oddly, I think I am the perfect demographic for Burton’s film: people who have a hazy knowledge of the material to the point where confusion overtakes enjoyment and we just assume that what we watched was good, accurate, and well done due to special effects and filmmaker credentials.
Well, first off, after much research and common-knowledge-recall, I think we can agree that Lewis Carroll’s works were meant to be gibberish, odd, and “cooky” (in an intentionally literate way) to begin with. The brilliant (I’ve heard at least) source material is obviously the least of Alice’s problems, especially since this film, much like Disney’s original, is a huge mash-up retelling of all things “Carroll” in a story that is a sequel to the stories that he wrote. Yeah, let me try to organize that thought: Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland is a sequel to the source material that uses story/plot elements from the source material coupled with newly-written material and material that is written from assumptions based on source material. Whew. Now, at least Disney’s original film was just a merging of two books, it doesn’t completely obliterate all possibility of children one day reading the books and understanding how the already confusing brilliance of Carroll fits together with their lifetime of understanding of what Burton told them it was. In the year 2030 there will be a lot of adults surprised to find out that ALICE IN WONDERLAND was possibly the most confusing title choice for a beloved nostalgic film of their youth. I guess Alice Returns To Wonderland was too complex for audiences to grasp. Hook wasn’t titled Peter Pan for a reason.
I love(d) Burton, please know that, but the guy lost his “genius” switch almost a decade ago with Planet Of The Apes. Since then he truly has been doing Tim Burton “Auto-Pilot” theater, and Alice is no exception. If anything, it is more proof. There’s nothing wrong with a director teaming up for several upon several projects with a lead, especially one as talented as Depp. The problems begin when the collaboration starts to get obvious to the point of banality, to the point where it almost seems like they are dragging each other down because everything is taken for granted that nothing is artistically progressing.
This time around Depp and Burton’s past has painfully caught up to them, helped in no way by the marketing blitz displaying the Mad Hatter’s admittedly insane appearance. So how off the deep end does Depp’s performance get? How maniacal does he take his character? How much does Burton’s Mad Hatter resemble a sentient volcano, filed with molten-crazy, ERUPTING COMEDY AT EVERY TURN??? Zip. Nothing. Notta. The MAD Hatter of Tim Burton’s nightmarish dream world is less crazy than most action-film comedy-relief characters during their subdued moments. His entrance and subsequent screen time is scathingly boring, to the point where his bland presence almost becomes embarrassing. In fact, he is actually one of the most serious characters in the movie, yet the movie itself doesn’t seem to realize it. I would assume this was intentional, they were trying to give the Hatter depth, yet it takes away the essential nature of the character. If I create a character called Homeless Jim, and he stops being Homeless, who is he? The craziest thing Mad Hatter does is dancing, via the excessively boring magic of CGI, for like 30 seconds. “Cringe-worthy” is a very clichéd term to use in any review. It was cringe-worthy as all hell.
**********VERY MILD SPOILERS START HERE**********
The last time Burton re-adapted the source material of an already beloved movie (a.k.a. it wasn’t a remake) I absolutely, positively hated it with every ounce of my body. Why should this be any different? Perhaps I’m not the audience for this (I guess.) Although, I try to stay positive, I’m always hoping that my fears about a flick are unjustified. Now I realize that I’ve talked very little about the actual movie itself, and honestly, it’s because I forgot most of whatever it was about. Something having to do with killing the Red Queen’s dragon, the Jabberwock, with the Vorple sword, which is from the poem “Jabberwocky” (yeah, it’s confusing.) What I do remember is that the plot was like Alice In Wonderland adapted, both in script and style, as the most derivative fantasy movie of last decade. I’m not joking either; there are shots of Alice and the Mad Hatter standing on a balcony together in front of Rivendale. Yes, that Rivendale. Waterfalls, majestic landscapes, soft focus, white glow and all. There is even a Narnia-like prophecy about an English child (Alice) returning to the fantasy world to kill the evil Queen (which from what I can research, is not from the books, so they willingly wrote such a derivative concept…I could be wrong.) This is all inflamed by an epic battle at the end, where we finally get to see Johnny Depp, as the Serious Hatter fight Crispin Glover with a CGI body. Finally, my dreams made corporeal!
The movie is made up of giant assumptions and it derails from the second Alice steps into Wonderland. The tone is predicated upon audience’s perfect recollection and knowledge of the source material to the point that character’s speak Carroll’s gibberish, which if fine, BUT, they speak it fast and without the slightest bit of enunciation. The movie doesn’t seem to care that if the audience can’t hear the “nonsense” words, we can’t comprehend that they are, in fact, nonsense. I’ve read “Jabberwocky,” I know the word “bandersnatch,” yet I couldn’t tell they were saying it during the entire movie until the very end, struggling to Frankenstein-stitch all the syllables up in my brain. I’m all for nonsense and lunacy, but if I need subtitles to understand what the characters are speed-whispering the whole movie, what’s the point? This gives the entire production a feeling of disjointed, slovenly pacing, not to mention the fact that it doesn’t bother with any character setup. Burton expects that you know the individual and overall plights of these characters, and their struggle against the evil Red Queen, from the word go. Sure, we know what Alice’s deal is, but give us a bit more meat as to why these characters chose the sides they did, and what they have been doing since she left. You are writing a whole new story anyway, if you going to crap on it, at least explain some character motivation. Why doesn’t the Cheshire Cat use his powers to do anything of worth? Burton’s film leaves behind the helping Alice/hurting Alice, deviant nature of the books and Disney’s original film…in this he’s a force of apparent, straightforward “good.” This is a “new” story, one in which you’ve changed the tone to action-fantasy and the nature of the character…so I’m not asking Lewis Carroll, I’m asking Tim Burton (but I would be interested in Carroll’s response.) Why doesn’t the Cheshire Cat transport himself behind the Red Queen’s throne and slit her jugular with his nails? Ok, it’s a kid’s movie, but come one, this Cat is almost omniscient, practically immortal, and devilishly smart (he also has the power to physically morph into other forms?!?!) Yet, like a badly written Superman comic, he doesn’t work at his full potential.
The cast does a fine job. It’s nice to see Crispin Glover on screen, even with a CGI body. Mia Wasikowska does a damn fine job as Alice. Alan Rickman, Helena Carter, Anne Hathaway, Stephen Fry…they are all top notch, movie aside. Right around here, two years ago, you would be treated to me complaining about CGI and green-screen based filmmaking, but I don’t have the energy anymore and I doubt there are any new arguments to bring to the pro-analog table. I would also have to explain why Avatar would get a pass from me, yet Alice seems to be killing my spirit, which in and of itself is probably the best review I could give you.
Highly recommended to The Last Unicorn fans, Hot Topic employees and customers, and elderly folks who have nothing to do at 2pm on Tuesdays.
I’m Bob Rose, thanks for reading, this sentence is going to end now.
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