by Marc Bauer
Sometimes, when watching a movie, it inspires you with questions. In the best scenarios, these questions are a good thing, you are thinking about the plot, the characters, and where this is going next. In Tim Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, these questions are there, but they are of a different nature. ‘Why did I pay nearly $15 for this?’ is one. ‘The original material was so good, why would they change it?’ is another. Tim Burton has taken a great story, one of the most recognized fantasies, and turned it into something completely different. Imagine, if you will, a 5-year old being given free reign in a kitchen; I’d venture the jellybean sandwich they created to be the culinary equivalent of this movie.
The movie is capped with two scenes in the real world, filmed in flat pastels. These scenes rely very lightly on tinkering and special effects other than some color balancing to wash away anything that resembling human flesh and expanding a few extras into a field full of followers. Imagine if you will a “Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jette” inhabited by the undead and you will be able to mentally approximate the ‘warmth’ of this scene. What comes between those capping scenes is brash, colorful, and completely saccharine. These scenes are the ‘white bread’ in the aforementioned sandwich, and the entire time in Underland (more on this in a bit) are the jellybeans betwixt.
Without spoiling too much for those would-be viewers, let me address a few changes in the film that ‘let the air out,’ so to speak. First, the original was a fine story, the change made, where Alice had visited before and was returning 13 years later was unnecessary. It was a device that allowed less exposition to introduce the characters to Alice, as it is assumable that she has met them before. The world she visits is called Underland, something the 6 year old version of Alice misheard as Wonderland. Also gone is the lazy meandering through a world of whimsy. The new version is a good vs. bad morality tale with an ultimate goal. Sure, some of the memorable bits are still there, but some of the greatest scenes were done away with… you get the eat me/drink me bit, but gone is the sea of Alice’s tears; gone are the Duchess and the pig baby, the mock turtle and the gryphon. Most noticeably gone, is the connection to the characters.
Tim Burton’s vision is one of bright colors and sharp angles; where the unimaginable becomes real and the real being something shoved under the carpet. To achieve this look, a heavy reliance on CG was used, but not very well. Nearly everything seen on screen in Underland is tweaked, twisted, stretched, squished and shaped, and not with the best results. The Knave of Hearts is a lanky, awkward and altogether unpleasant looking character. His arms sit strange in the shoulders; his movements are stark, almost as if watching Jack Skellington from Nightmare Before Christmas with flesh. The character handles like something out of a videogame circa 1999. Pasted onto this gangly monstrosity is the face of Crispin Glover. Or rather, 2/3 the face of Crispin Glover, as a large scar an eye patch and long hair block most of the face. Crispin Glover , someone who is known for quirky portrayals is used to ill-effect. His performance is blocky due to poor CG integration, and poor costuming hides his identity. The role could have been filled by anyone with the ability to read emotionless lines into a camera.
The bad performances don’t end there… everyone in the film is wooden, but by no fault of their own. The actor’s greatest tool is their body, and no one gets to use their body in this film. Alan Rickman’s voice comes out of an animated caterpillar, Stephen Fry from a disembodied cat or sometimes from thin air. The worst offender is Helena Bonham Carter; nepotism got her the role, and she did nothing to prove she deserved it. Her face is pasted onto the body of the Red Queen in what looks like an afterthought of design. She, too, does nothing more than read lines to a camera knowing full well that her face will be manipulated later into what Burton wants.
Anne Hathaway, as the White Queen, shows up roughly around the time you are looking at your watch to see if this movie is over yet, and spends a few short moments on screen through the climax. She is one of the few people that isn’t manipulated, tweaked or reshaped by a computer. This is an issue too, because as such a ‘real’ person amongst these homunculi, she stands out in her realism. Clad totally in white from hair to toe, without little CG, she is symbolical of purity. The side of good, the personification of the color, or lack of it, that is white.
In previous films, Johnny Depp has channeled a musician to help him portray a character. In the Pirates of the Caribbean series he was a sketch of Keith Richards. In Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, he was Marilyn Manson. In this film, his Mad Hatter is a strange version of Jack White if he was fathered by Carrot Top. It is nothing great, yet is nothing terrible either. It merely is. He is loony, disconnected and distant; exactly the traits we want to see in the Hatter. Depp delivers a scenery chewing performance that is the only believably one in the film.
The mostly unknown Mia Wasikowska as Alice was. For a relative unknown to carry a film of this magnitude, she did a decent job. Acting at a blue screen for what must have been 90% of her daily calls on this film must have been hard for her, but it works for her. She portrays the ‘this is all a dream’ mentality well into the third act, where by necessity of plot, she has to start believing it is all real to further her quest. Something I take issue with, again.
The list of strong female protagonists in Fantasy is short, at best. One of the things that keeps the list as short as it is, is the lack of any real adventures for the women, and this film continues that trend. The female character in Fantasy is usually a girl that experiences a dream. The film introduces characters, and then shows you a fantastic version of that character in the dream world. The Mad Hatter is paralleled in the real world by an orange haired, gap toothed man with a large cravat. A set of twins in stripes in the real world are replaced by the Tweedles in Underland. When male characters engage in fantasy, they go on a journey, they fight an adversary, and they actually DO something. When a female character engages in a fantasy, it is often given the Oz treatment, that it was all a dream; usually with an artifact of the fantasy spilling over into the real world to challenge our conceptions. I understand that, in itself, IS fantasy, but the image of the hysterical woman talking nonsense is far too common in film. Tim Burton gave us Lidia in Beetlejuice. He showed us female fantasy needn’t be just a dream. I hope oneday he can do it again.
If you must, take the kids, not LSD, to see this movie.