Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Curiouser and Curiouser: Tim Burton's ALICE IN WONDERLAND

Over the years, Tim Burton has proven himself to be a master of whimsically ghoulish imagery, but he has also proven to not always match his visuals to an equally inspired plot. When he’s at his best his style and content are fused and focused, honed in on the particular obsessions of the film’s protagonist, for nearly all Burton protagonists are haunted and fascinated, attracted and repulsed, by a certain object or concept that drives their goals in tangible ways. This can be seen starting with his first feature, Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure, which finds Pee-Wee Herman tracking down his stolen bike, and continuing with Beetlejuice, which has Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin as ghostly homeowners. You can trace this feature through all of Burton’s best work: from Edward and his Scissorhands to Ed Wood and his filmmaking and cross dressing, from Ed Bloom's tall tales to Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory to Sweeney Todd’s revenge with bloody barber’s blades. When there is less of a clear focus on characters and their possessions, Burton seems to lose focus as well. When that happens, despite retaining great, inventive imagery, the films grow manic and inconsistent. That’s the case in Mars Attacks!, a scattershot B-movie send up that is fun at times but ultimately a mess. Unfortunately the same can be said about his latest film, Alice in Wonderland.

It’s an oft adapted tale originating in the late 1800s with Lewis Carroll’s books about a little girl that falls down the rabbit hole, but Burton, working with screenwriter Linda Woolverton, have staked out new ground for themselves that separates their adaptation from all those of the past. This film is pitched as a sequel (of sorts) to the original story, with a 20-year-old Alice believing her earlier time in Wonderland was a dream. As the film opens on a stuffy Victorian life, we find her on the verge of getting a marriage proposal from a sniveling twit. Alice is simply too graceful, too imaginative, too modern for the times. She fits the Burton hero type very well, a discontented misfit with pale skin and dark eyes. As played well by Mia Wasikowska, the early scenes establish an interesting different take on Alice, one with interesting feminist implications, that the film decides to drop as soon, and as quickly, as she falls down the rabbit hole chasing that waist-coat clad, pocket-watch wielding creature.

Upon landing in Wonderland, which is appreciably more post-apocalyptic than any prior incarnation, Alice promptly becomes a pawn in an elaborate, yet charmingly disproportionate, fantasy world. She fades into the background of her own story as we are given a parade of characters and events that make only small impacts that never add up to a bigger one. Besides, Burton seems much more fascinated with the characters played by his regular actors Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter.

As the Mad Hatter, Depp takes risks with his performance, slipping in and out of a murderously gravely Scottish brogue while the rest of his lines come out in a whispery, giggly, high-pitched lisp. His eyes are oddly cold, yet always moving, staring out from underneath a coat of sickly clown makeup and frizzy hair the color of rotten carrots. It almost works, but falls flat simply because there’s no character under the shtick. He’s out on a limb with no support from the script.

Carter, on the other hand, is a whirlwind scene-stealer as the Red Queen, playing her as a whiny, stunted monarch, managing to make a shout of “Off with his head!” ring with shifty insecurity and deadly impulsiveness. She’s warped with special effects to have a big head that is quite literal, balancing on a too-thin neck. She’s part fairy-tale villain, part spoiled brat, part demonic bobblehead. Carter marches through the film, chewing scenery, spitting out her lines, and overshadowing everyone. She’s clearly having a great time and it’s infectious.

The other characters are a mish-mash of the familiar and the unknown who all coalesce around a plot that becomes a fairly standard fantasy-quest story that involves recruiting Alice to find a sword and slay the Jabberwocky to restore peace in the fantasy world. Various creatures with the voices of British character actors show up including a delightful Stephen Fry Chesire Cat, squashy Matt Lucas Tweedledee and Tweedledum, and a smoking caterpillar with too few lines for being voiced by the always excellent Alan Rickman. Live action Anne Hathaway shows up as a pearly-white Gothic good girl whose hands seem to float about on their own accord. Also live action, and wholly welcome, is the reliably odd Crispin Glover as a glowering henchman of the Red Queen, digitally stretched in an oddly disorienting and heightened way.

There are fun moments and memorable images to be found throughout these characters’ interactions and the quest’s progression. I loved the look of the Red Queen and her castle, from the gulping frog butlers, the chandelier held by birds, the table held by monkeys, and the pig ottomans, all the way down to the small heart drawn in lipstick on her cold, grey lips. I especially enjoyed the shivery gross-out moat filled with the proof of her love for beheadings. The story moves along quickly and goes down without complication, but unfortunately the movie never quite fits together. It’s bewitching, bothersome, and bewildering.

About three-fourths of the way through the film, I found myself realizing that the movie just wouldn’t resolve satisfactorily. The movie’s simply too manic, too frantic, too eager to show the next cool-looking thingamabob. Too many strands and plot attempts formulate for the movie to conclude simply, and so maybe it’s to the movie’s benefit that it doesn’t try. There seems to be a reluctance for the thing to end at all given the circuitous route to the fairly rote big battle that’s both unneeded and uncommitted. If Burton and Woolverton really wanted to go there, it needn’t be so wishy-washy and over almost before it begins, especially since we’ve known what’s coming since we were shown a scroll that predicts the future very early on.

And yet, all of this wouldn’t matter so much if the dreamy nightmare world of Alice’s weren’t so completely disconnected from the framing device of stifling Victorianism. I would have liked to see her experiences in phantasmagoric confusion relate to some kind of arc or voyage of self-discovery. Instead, Alice starts the film fully formed, experiences some weird stuff, and then ends the film slightly more bold. There’s no sense of any real psychological or emotional stakes. As fantastic as the film is to look at, and as much as it did at times sweep me away in wonderment, it’s simply too hollow and messy to form a cohesive experience.

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