Friday, March 4, 2011

Film Friday: Alice In Wonderland (2010)

I’m a fan of Tim Burton, but sadly he died right before making Corpse Bride. And rather than letting his memory rest in peace, the studio replaced him with a fake who’s been making films like Alice in Wonderland under Burton’s name. Alice is sloppy, unoriginal, and it kills the very spirit of what Burton was trying to capture. It’s studio-horrid.

** spoiler alert **

The Technicals

What can I say about this movie? Well, for starters, this movie is not for kids, even though Disney suggests it is. But feel free to disagree if you think your kids are ready to see eyes gouged out with needles, a moat floating with decapitated heads, and Alice drinking blood at the end. . . don’t worry, it’s purple, not red!

Visually, what Burton has done is pretty at times, but it’s all stolen. The Red Queen’s castle is Hogwarts with a different paint job. The White Queen’s castle is Rivendell from The Lord of the Rings. The way the animals were animated comes straight from the Narnia films. Some of the character actions (particularly the Dormouse) are straight from Labyrinth or Willow. And so on.

The writing is pathetic. There isn't a memorable moment or line in the film. The word choice is weak, the dialog is incomprehensible, and the plot is nonexistent. The story begins with a clichéd anachronism, as we’re presented with a lame leftist view of the British aristocracy as nose-picking, inbred fools. These people look like something from a Pride and Prejudice theme party, yet Alice acts like she’s from 1963, and this doesn't seem to bother anyone. For example, she's introduced right after burning her bra. . . er, refusing to wear her corset. She then roams around smugly and condescendingly insulting everyone. Fortunately for her, these characters are clichés and thus are too stupid to be able to fight back, so they just act shocked and cowed. She also skools the old businessman by telling him that she, a petulant, rebellious, stupid 19 year old girl who is prone to fantasies and unreliability should be given control over his firm's operations in China. Naturally, he agrees.

If I were to put a name to this “style” of storytelling, it would be "feminist revisionist period piece” or, more simply, “delusional feminist porno."

To try to seem clever during this opening, Burton and writer Linda Woolverton make several of the aristocrats mimic classic Alice in Wonderland characters, like the two nearly-twin girls who we are supposed to see as Tweedledum and Tweedledee, or the businessman we are to see as the White Rabbit. Of course, “clever” is a relative term as this trick has been done in virtually every other “child transported to fantasy world” story since The Wizard of Oz, and nothing original is done with it here.

From there, the story takes you nowhere. Alice falls down the hole, where she meets Johnny Depp, playing a schizophrenic cross between Michael Jackson and William Wallace of Braveheart. He looks like a methhead, and his character is ultimately pointless except as plot filler. Alice then learns that her destiny is to kill the Jabberwocky, and through a series of uninteresting plot points, she does. Ho hum. Along the way, she meets the Red Queen, who is bad, and she meets the White Queen, who seems to be doing a mix of pot and acid. There’s not much more to say about the plot.

Burton’s Real Failure

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland (1865) has been loved by dozens of generations. What gives the story its staying power is the incredible world created by Lewis Carroll (real name Charles Lutwidge Dodgson). And what makes that world so incredible is that Carroll takes reality and turns it on its head by infusing the impossible with the illogical and making that reality. In other words, his world isn’t the real world only containing silly things, like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but it’s an entirely different world with a different set of rules. Thus, rather than being a mere story about strange events, Wonderland is a story about a unique place that tickles the imagination and inspires us to think about the possibilities of this new world.

Disney captured this spirit perfectly in its 1951 cartoon Alice in Wonderland, as Alice explores this world on our behalf and learns about its wonders. Tim Burton, based on his reputation, was expected to run with this concept and make the world even more fantastic or even more strange. He failed.

In the book and the Disney version, the world in which Alice finds herself is a reality. The characters within it accept its rules the same way we accept things like gravity and the way we know the sun to rise in the East. This is what creates the interesting tension, in that Alice finds herself in a world were everyone else knows what’s going on except her. And as she explores she finds that the impossible is not only possible, but common. Burton, however, tosses that structure away. What he presents instead is a world that is exactly like our own, and which plays by the exact same physical and logical rules as our own, only it contains strange looking characters with some odd traits.

That’s a huge difference. In the original and Disney worlds, we are pulled in as we learn the new rules and we love this world because anything is possible. In Burton’s Alice, by comparison, we get nothing of the sort. We already know the rules by which they live, and the only thing left to marvel at are the strangely dressed characters and their few abnormal traits. The difference between these two is like the difference between finding yourself at a tea party in a world with no physical laws versus finding yourself drinking tea at Michael Jackson's house.

Moreover, this gives the actors little to work with, and it shows. In most of Burton’s prior films, the actors could use the new realities of the worlds in which their characters live to find something to inject into the characters to make them interestingly bizarre, yet within the realm of normal for their worlds. Thus, the Joker’s psychopathic showmanship in Batman fit perfectly in his Gotham, though it would fail miserably in our world. Edward Scissorhands’ strange mechanical nature, Ichabod Crane’s terror at discovering a world of magic in Sleepy Hollow, and Pumpkin Jack’s inability to do joy instead of terror in Nightmare Before Christmas all infused these characters with drama, tension and depth. We understood who they were from how they fit in their worlds.

In Alice, there is nothing fantastic about the characters except that they are physically misshapen or strangely dressed. So the actors resorted to trying to seem “fantastic” by doing things like lisping their lines (Carter, Depp) or waving their arms around like idiots (Hathaway) or slinking about (Crispin Glover). But these things just make the characters look uncomfortable and out of place in this world, they don’t give us any sense of who the people are, nor do they make us think they are in some strange world. Instead, it feels like Burton simply shot this at a mental home. Compare that with truly unique characters like Disney’s Mad Hatter or the Caterpillar, who were fixtures of a different reality.

It really is sad. The studio took a guy with tremendous imagination and asked him to dream big, and what he came up with was a formulaic studio film using strangely-dressed characters all pretending to be crazy. Why even bother?

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29 comments:

Tennessee Jed said...

The DVD restoration of the 1952 animated classic is wonderful.

The Burton sequal is way over the top. Unfortunately, kids ARE getting exposed to that kind of violence way too early.

I will admit there is lush imagery. I did happen to like H.B. Carter in this.

ScottDS said...

I'm a huge Tim Burton fan (my bank can tell you that!) and I'll never forget when I saw the teaser for Edward Scissorhands. I must've been 6 or 7 and when this title card came up: "From the director of Batman and Beetlejuice", I got it. It was the first time I realized films had a "director" and that a director could imbue a film with a unique style.

Planet of the Apes is the only Burton film I don't like but he admitted later it was a studio hack job and he didn't enjoy it. It's also the most un-Burton of all his films.

Oddly, in my opinion, Alice has the opposite problem: it reeks of Burton self-parody. It has everything you expect from one of his films and on one hand, maybe that's a good thing but on the other hand, that kind of uniformity should be anathema to someone like him.

Why is this? Maybe it's because he's been working with the same stock company of actors for almost a decade. I love Depp and Bonham-Carter but I'd love to see Burton work with Michael Keaton or Paul Reubens again. Maybe it's because Danny Elfman is on auto-pilot. I enjoyed parts of his Alice score but I long for the days of Batman. And, strangely, my favorite Burton film of the last decade doesn't use Elfman music at all (Sweeney Todd)!

Re: the original story, I've never read it but from what I understand, Burton always felt it was a random series of events which is why he crafted the film the way he did: "It was always a girl wandering around from one crazy character to another, and I never really felt any real emotional connection." (quote from Wikipedia)

And re: the violence, it seems to me that there are two schools of thought on this: the "Think of the children!" brigade who are responsible for getting Coyote/Road Runner cartoons of the air... and the other side which says, "In my day, we played with toy guns and turned out fine! Enough of this PC bulls---!" Per usual, I know I'm oversimplifying it and, yes, there are limits to this sort of thing but it makes the mind wander. :-)

Anonymous said...

I thought it was going to be like Disney's cartoon style just technically up to date. Why change the story line? It is about a pre-teen girl who falls down a rabbit hole into a lush Wonderland.

I can understand the itch to put the director's style on a classic. But sometimes that itch shouldn't be scratched. It leads to open sores and Johnny Depp as the Mad-Hatter.

This is also a test to see if I can post from my computer.

Anonymous said...

The last one was mine.


Joel

T_Rav said...

Personally, I thought the most annoying thing about the movie was the 3-D crap. I don't like it in general, and there wasn't much reason for it in this movie especially.

I agree that some of the stuff was a little disturbing for kids to watch, particularly (in my opinion) that part with the frog losing his head for the jam. I don't know, the movie was watchable and I enjoyed it while I was watching it, but honestly, it wasn't that good.

wahsatchmo said...

I really disliked this movie also. It was disjointed scene after disjointed scene, and Depp's slipping between a brogue and a lisp was distracting as all get out. It felt aimless and listless, and despite all the action and visuals, it felt lifeless.

I concur on Elfman's score, Scott. He used to be a bit of a hero to me in the composing world, but ever since his dull, clichéd work in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, I've pretty much given up on expecting anything wonderful from him.

AndrewPrice said...

Jed, The 1952 classic is fantastic. It really is a classic movie, even though it's only animated. Even as an adult, I still enjoy it.

And you're right about them selling this one as a kids movie. Netflix actually has it in their "children's" section. So it was rather surprising when one of the first scenes in "Underworld" was when they plucked the eye out of the giant cat things and ran off with it.

Ed said...

Once again, great review. I thought the film looked great, but it didn't feel all that "wonderful" and now I get it. Burton never really created a new world, he just stuck some strange things into our world. You really should review films professionally!

LawHawkRFD said...

I struggled to get through Alice, but didn't succeed. If weirdness were a virtue, it would be the only virtue I saw. But then my favorite Burton movies are Ed Wood and Mars Attacks!, so what do I know? I also liked the Elfman score for Mars, though it was obvious he borrowed liberally from Mussorgsky.

AndrewPrice said...

Scott, My response... :-)

1. On the violence, I'm fine with the violence.... except, then don't try to sell it to kids. Either it's an R rated film or it's for kids, but you can't make a bloody, gross film and then advertise it as a wonderful experience for kids.

Also, on violence in general, let me say that I'm not one of those who think kids need to be put into a bubble. I know a lot of people complain about the violence in old cartoons or how dark some of them are (particularly old Disney films like Snow White), but I have no problems with that. Fairy tales are dark by their very nature and kids can deal with that. But there's a difference between an evil shadow taking over the world and eyes being gouged out and heads floating in a moat -- even if you change their color to make them look less real.

2. On Burton, I think you and I agree on this. This film feels like someone said "let's parody Tim Burton," but they didn't have the creativity to create an immersive world. Instead, they created a fairly dull world involving two warring kingdoms and then they tossed in visually "Burton-like" images, but nothing more.

3. I agree about the cast. I think he needs fresh blood. But I would also add that I don't think Carter is a particularly strong actress -- she's got one note in my opinion, at least in everything I've seen since Fight Club (where she was brilliant). At this point, IMO, she lets down everything she's in.

(continued)

AndrewPrice said...

(continued)
4. In terms of his movies, I've been disappointed for a while. Obviously, Planet of the Apes was horrid. But I thought Corpse Bride was a poor knock-off of Nightmare and Sweeney Todd felt like a Burton-cliche.

5. On the story itself, I again don't mind that they changed it, though I don't think he added anything. There is virtually no plot here -- two warring kingdom, Alice must kill the Jaberwocky to win the war. That's called a "set up," not a plot. And between those points, absolutely nothing happens. Depp in particular does nothing except act crazy. Seriously, try to tell me how he affects the plot except that he gives Alice an excuse to spend time talking about how bad the Red Queen is.

Ultimately, I think the problem is the very quote you point out. Clearly, Burton did not like or respect or understand the original story, and he treated it with contempt. He should have rejected this project if he didn't like the original material. Seriously, this would be like being asked to remake Star Wars when your opinion of Star Wars is "it's a cheap film about some guy with a sword." That's not the person who should be remaking it.

AndrewPrice said...

Joel, I am of two minds on remakes. On the one hand, I feel like, if you're going to remake a classic, then you should stick to the classic and just improve it visually or in style. But on the other hand, I'm fine with them reinterpreting a film. To me, it's just a matter of choosing one or the other, I can't stand people who pretend to remake something but then change it all over the place.

Since I didn't expect Burton to just remake the original, I wasn't bothered by what he did with the plot. What bothered me was the utter lack of plot. Not only is there no depth here, there's barely any shallow.

What this feels like to me, is that the studio wanted to use Burton's "street-cred" to make a film that was basically a shallow summer blockbuster that they could sell overseas. And it worked, they made a fortune on this -- but it's telling that it got only 2 weeks of minor play on HBO and it hasn't been subject to any big DVD campaign or anything like that. In other words, while it made a fortune during its run in the theaters, this movie has no staying power.

And I can tell you, as someone who loves cult classics, this one won't become a cult classic either because it just doesn't have the heart.

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, I think 3-D is a gimmick that Hollywood is using to inflate ticket prices. And it's a pretty cynical gimmick because they are wedging it into films as a selling point and then manipulating the film content to appease the selling point. That's the same thing as including a particular location or character to try to appeal to particular audiences -- which is something else they do a lot of these days.

Overall, the film isn't unwatchable. But I doubt very many people will ever want to see it again, and most people are describing it as not at all memorable. And in that regard, I say the test is always what moments you remember and what lines you can quote when you leave the theater.... there isn't much (any) of that in this film.

AndrewPrice said...

wahsatchmo, I had the same reaction. Depp's character was annoying the way he switched back and forth between two incompatible characters and never really seemed to have a genuine core.

And ultimately, the best word for the film is "lifeless." Everything in the film felt like the characters were going through the motions. Interestingly, part of that was the way they set up the "plot." They tell you almost immediately that Alice's destiny is to kill the Jabberwocky, and then they give you no sense that there's ever going to be any doubt she can do it. They even tell you that all she has to do is hold onto the sword and it will do the rest. That kills all of the suspense. And the individual scenes don't feel like they are there for any purpose other than giving us something to watch before we get to the ending. So you never really feel like there's any tension.

On Elfman, I was really impressed with his work on Nightmare Before Christmas, and was generally satisfied with his work, though IMO he's never really had the kind of memorable scores like John Williams. But he really does seem to be on autopilot these days.

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, Thanks! I think that is the ultimate problem here, that Burton doesn't create a world, he just shots images of people in strange clothing. And that's not very interesting.

I can't see myself doing professional reviews because I'm not really interested in doing the "it was good, the acting was solid, you should see it." I'd rather take the films apart and see what I think works or not.

rlaWTX said...

I've tried, but I'm just not a Burton fan. I really liked Batman, and I liked Beetlejuice. I've tried to watch Scissorhands, but I didn't get it - but I did get really WEIRD dreams!
Anyway, I've heard how great Nightmare before C'mas is, so I tried that one recently. I got about halfway and gave up. I didn't get it either - but at least no weird dreams...

And since I refuse to watch any more movies in 3D (I actually paid for 3D Avatar - and was sick; survived Tron), I missed this one. And now I am glad.

AndrewPrice said...

Lawhawk, I didn't struggle to get through this one, but I never found myself very interested in what was going on. That's why I think it's "watchable" but it's not a good film nor does it have any staying power.

AndrewPrice said...

rlaWTX, A lot of people don't like Burton's style. I've enjoyed the strange, almost insane/melodramatic worlds he's created in the past, but his "schtick" is getting worn out, and much of what he's done lately feels very cliched to me.

As I say above too, I'm not a fan of 3-D because I see it as a marketing gimmick that trumps the artistic value of the films, rather than enhances them.

In this case, it was just a flat, dull, uninteresting film with some cliched Burton images and some forced unpleasantness. And all in all, it was a mess. So you're better off having skipped it. You won't miss this one.

Ed said...

Andrew, Good point, you're reviews really aren't just reviews, but I still think you should do it professionally!

You mention that you see the difference between reinterpretation and remaking, and I agree. I used to get upset when I saw something being remade and then it was completely different, but not always. It took me some time to figure out what the difference was and I figured out that if they remake something, then I want them to be faithful to the original for the most part. But if they reimagine it or reboot it, then I'm fine seeing it as something completely different, and then I don't want them being too close to the original. Like you, I'm bothered when they sell something as a remake, but it's really a reinterpretation.

CrispyRice said...

I'm also just not a Tim Burton fan, Edward Scissorhands excepted.

I think this movie surprised me mostly in that I didn't hate it. I've not bothered to see it ever again, but I didn't hate it. That's pretty high praise for Tim Burton from me. :D

AndrewPrice said...

Ed, That's how I see it too. So long as they are remaking something, they should remain faithful to the material. If they want to reinterpret, then by all means have fun with it and do something original.

AndrewPrice said...

Crispy, That's high praise indeed -- I didn't hate it like I thought I would! LOL!

Ed said...

Speaking of remakes, are you ever going to review the Lord of the Rings? I'm curious what you think about that.

T_Rav said...

Andrew, I'm really not a huge fan of Tim Burton movies in general: I think Batman was the only one I really liked. Edward Scissorhands was just bizarre and depressing from start to finish, I didn't care much for Nightmare Before Christmas, and the rest I haven't seen. I just don't see why his films are supposed to be so great.

Ditto on Ed--you should definitely do a review on LOTR (BH is currently doing a commemoration of it and Tolkien).

AndrewPrice said...

T_Rav, Burton is one of those people that some people really like and others really dislike, there are few people in the middle on him. And I certainly can see both sides. I think what he presents (or at least used to present) is a unique view of the worlds he creates in his films. So each film was really a fantasy world come to life. But I think he's becoming a bit of a cliche and he's repeating himself so regularly that his most recent stuff isn't very original.


T_Rav & Ed,

On the LOTR, I can do that, but I'm not the biggest fan of the films. They are fun films and I enjoy them, BUT they've lost the essence of the book to me because they made too many commercial choices, particularly with regard to tinkering with the characters and taking out the things that made them so loved. I really don't think they respected the material or the audience. Let me think about it and I'll see what I can come up with.

Doc Whoa said...

I disliked this film a lot. It had none of the fantasy aspect I was expecting and it struck me as pointless. I don't think there was a moment where I really card what happened next to the characters.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, It was very difficult to care about anything in this film. But then I don't think they tried for that. I think they just tried to put something together that people would watch without thinking about it and then run home and say "wow, it was really cool".... and they hoped no one would ask questions like "really, what was so cool about it?"

Doc Whoa said...

I agree, I think they made this film for people who just like bright, shiny objects. I'm sorry if that's insulting, but it's true. This film was made to be as mindless as possible.

AndrewPrice said...

Doc, You're more right than you know. I'm putting together an interesting article on who Hollywood's real target market is. Here's a hint, it's not adults and it's not Americans.

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