Friday, March 05, 2010

Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland: A Review

"Why is a raven like a writing desk?"

The Mad Hatter,
Alice's Adventures in Wonderland (1865)

Lewis Carroll never meant for it to have an answer - but I like the one he proposed after being pressed for it;
"Because it can produce a few notes, though… they are very flat; and it is nevar put with the wrong end in front!"

I saw Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland yesterday in 3-D literally minutes right after my Medicine end of posting exam and... well, you guys know that when I write a focused post dedicated to a particular film, it's usually because it's the-best-thing-ever #86 or because it's godawful. I'm going to break that mold today with this review because it is my amateur expert opinion that this movie fell squarely in between the two.

This is Disney's second foray into the secret dreamworld of Alice, the first being their animated classic in 1951 which is quite possibly the only exposure most people ever got to Carroll's literary masterpiece. I personally know a distressingly large number of people who aren't even aware of the storybook's existence. When I heard about this project, I was very excited even though I'm not really a big fan of Burton's idiosyncratic brand of film-making. While I think Mars Attacks! and Big Fish were really good flicks, I'm starting to believe Burton might have made a career out of turning his eccentricities into clichés. If Burton's making a film, it's almost a certainty that it will be macabre, featuring sumptuously rich scenery and costume porn, set to a Danny Elfman score and starring either Johnny Depp or his wife, Helena Bonham Carter (or both, as this case demonstates).

In short, he's the perfect director to adapt
Alice. And when I heard that it was going to be an epic fantasy sequel of sorts featuring a grown up Alice revisiting Wonderland, I almost pissed my pants with fanboy glee. I shall explain why later.

Alice (1)
And the result was... adequate.

The cast was stellar and the only person I have never heard of was the actress playing Alice. Mia Wasikowska was constantly being overshadowed by everyone else and Johnny Depp's pink eyeshadow - and I simply couldn't get over how much she resembles Tobey Maguire,

Alice (10)
Alice in Wonderland, starring Spiderman!

Aside from the two Burton staples (Helena Bonham Carter and Depp), Alice in Wonderland also feature the considerable talents of Anne Hathaway as the White Queen, Alan "Gruber Snape" Rickman as the hookah-smoking caterpillar, Stephen Fry as the iconic Chesire Cat and Christopher Lee's booming basso as the Jabberwock - which is criminal because he had all of two short lines (but what awesome lines they are).

Alice (11)
"Off with their heads!"

H.B.C. played the macrocephalic Red Queen, Iracebeth (a combination of the Queen of Hearts and the Red Queen from Carroll's other work, Through the Looking-Glass) and I felt that she got the petulant, psychopathic woman-child bit down perfect. And Depp's portrayal of the Mad Hatter was, as expected, quite delicious. His character design apparently also included some visual cues alluding to the historical practice of hatters using mercury to cure felt, and mercury is suppose to bleach skin (and used to that end in illicit whitening cosmetics), and poisoning would turn hair and eyes red, aside from turning the hatters bonkers. Still, I couldn't find any medical literature to support the bit about hair and eye colour change. The best I dug up was a condition called acrodynia or "pink disease".

His madness was also represented by some kind of split personality disorder, psychotic attacks relating to which would suddenly cause him to acquire a Glaswegian accent and engage in dark, threatening-sounding soliloquies.

Alice (9)
"...And I like wearing skirts too!" said Depp, taken out of context from an interview.

But quite unexpectedly, I found that my favourite performance in the film was Anne Hathway's as Mirana, the White Queen,

Alice (5)
There's a rumor saying that Burton's make-up department only have crayons and a barrel of white face paint.

While she remained sweet and delightful for almost the entirety of the film, I simply couldn't shake off this creepy vibe I felt emanating from her. Maybe it's the unsettling deep rouge lips on a pale face look she got on. Or maybe it's just that eerie Stepford smile. Whatever it is, I can clearly see that insanity runs deep in Wonderland's royal family. I kept expecting her to do something disturbing or startling, like transform into some sort of nightmarish creature or reach out and gouge someone's eyes out while teehee-ing gaily the whole time.

The plot of the movie is thin and stringy. Alice is all grown up and was told that she should marry some lordly twat who is the son of her father's old business partner. Somehow, she ended back in Wonderland and found out about a prophecy (there's always one in fantastic epics) which foretold her facing off the monstrous Jabberwock - from Carroll's nonsensical poem, Jabberwocky - and snicker-snacking its head off with a vorpal blade on the Frabjous Day.

The best thing that Alice in Wonderland has going for it is its colourful visuals and creature designs - which I think would be ruined considerably if you watch it through the dark lens of a pair of 3-D glasses. There are times in which I have to remove mine just to see what's going on because some scenes were too dim. The sequence in which Alice plummets down the rabbit hole, which was suppose to benefit most from the gimmick of 3-D, were frantic and blurry. I am a fan of 3-D movies done right - like Avatar, which adjusted the brightness to account for the glasses and used the added depth to immerse, rather than to throw stuff at audiences' faces. I seriously advice anyone who is looking to see this film to consider seeing it on a plain old vanilla screen instead.

Ultimately, I find this movie disappointing because it isn't an all-out adaptation of this video game,

Alice (6)
An older cover art had her wrists bandaged due to her attempts at suicide.

American McGee's Alice is also sequel of sorts focusing on a grown up Alice. In this story, Alice's house burnt to the ground, killing her parents and leaving her the only survivor. The ordeal left her mind fractured, and her a mostly catatonic and suicidal human wreckage. She was institutionalised in Rutledge Asylum when years later, the White Rabbit summoned her back to a dark, twisted Wonderland which mirrored her troubled mental state. The creatures of Wonderland also changed drastically along with the world's decay. The Chesire Cat is a mangy, cachexic, half-skeletal carcass. The Mad Hatter is an insane scientist performing cruel body horror experiments on living things. The Red Queen is... well, I don't want to spoil that for you. Let's just say that she's like a really, really BAD nightmare.

Though the game's graphics are quite dated, the narrative and plot remained an original and ingenious re-imagining of Alice's story still. This game is the reason why I was initially so excited about Burton's Alice in Wonderland project. Both are about an adult Alice going back to wonderland. Both are about Alice defeating the Jabberwock and overthrowing the Red Queen. Of course, if Burton have made a faithful adaptation of American McGee's Alice, it would most certainly be an R-rated horror flick, and Disney would most assuredly want nothing to do with it. Just get an eyeful of this Duchess for starters,

Alice (7)
That's what Disney said.

Maybe someone who never played this game would enjoy the movie a lot more than I did, because I simply couldn't stop comparing the two while I was watching it - but I believe that even if I have judged this film on its own terms, I would still call Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland an uninspired galumph through Carroll's beloved fantasy world. The great performances and amazing visual effects are the only things this film has going for it. The story is pretty much an afterthought. The computer game, even if it does go though the same plot highlights, has a much more engaging Alice who fights for much higher stakes: her sanity.

All in all, mediocre effort, Mr Burton... mediocre.

P.S. Avril Lavigne's song at the end is dreadful, just dreadful. It's shrill, commercial and has no place in this movie at all.

k0k s3n w4i


阿光 said...

Hey! i watched the movie at thursday night too! was pretty upsetting, probably because i had too high hopes. Read the book when i was young, maybe that's why i found the movie sorta boring at certain times.. and sitting at the 3rd row of the cinema with 3D glasses at the midnight made my eyes so tired and constantly tearing through the movie... XD thought that the 3d was pretty upsetting, might have enjoyed it more if i was watching in normal cinemas =D

Zzzyun said...

yeah u were right about the 3D.. some of the scenes werent adjusted right for the glasses. sigh. prob shld have watched it on a normal screen.

and sigh, i didnt watch avatar in 3D!! what a waste..

and i felt the white queen was creepy too... i wonder when she was going to do something crazy..

but the movie was good becoz of the performances, and lovely scenery and costumes!!

weak storyline though, wic is a shame.

k0k s3n w4i said...

阿光 : well, boring is not how i'd describe it but there is certainly a lot wasted potential. i might watch it again when it premieres in 2-D, just to see if i will like it better.

Zzzyun: the performances certainly were memorable, and so were the scenery and costumes... you can probably still catch Avatar in 3-D in certain big theatres. The Dark Knight was in theatres for months.

kae vin said...

did you notice the scene where Alice was pointing at peninsular Malaysia with the label of Malacca? Probably showing the Malacca straits.

Now Malaysia is part of Wonderland :P

kae vin said...