Saturday, March 13, 2010

Alice in Wonderland: Tim Burton's Looking Glass

Tim Burton and Alice in Wonderland go together like fish and chips, so it's not unexpected that you come out of the movie thinking, "yeah, it's about time he did that." The dark tale of an English teenage girl tripping her way past March Hares and hookah-smoking caterpillars to face down the Queen of Hearts is such a natural for the director of Edward Scissorhands, Sleepy Hollow, and Big Fish that your only question may be, what took him so long?

Burton has such a wonderful time directing his two favorite actors - Johnny Depp (as the Mad Hatter) and Helena Bonham Carter (as the Queen of Hearts) - amongst the zany logic of Wonderland that the clever interaction between these two is the definite highlight of the movie. Bonham Carter's inflated head bobbles with lip-smacking indulgence and impossible proportion on her diminutive frame, while Depp, purple-eyed and feverish, perplexes the pompous Queen with a bevy of hat tricks. The two trade witticisms while the queen rests her weary peds on a (deliciously alive) pork belly, or plays croquet with living flamingos and chipmunks, and they're a bit like an aging hippy couple rehashing old arguments while dreaming themselves into a really far-out flashback.

Which is to say that it's not only Burton's visual style - all eye-popping and Escher-like - that's put to good use throughout most of this flick. His sense of oblong dialogue also serves him well as he directs his favorites in their logic-busting conversations. The other characters, however, lack the fabulousness of Burton's stars. Alice herself (played straight-down-the-line by relative newcomer, Mia Wasikowska), despite her constant shrinking and growing, offers much less magic. Anne Hathaway, as the White Queen, hams it up like she stumbled out of a high-school play. The animated creatures - including the March Hare, the door mouse, the dangerous Jabberwock, the Queen's card-guards, and the bad-doggy Bandersnatch - also have a bit of a cartoon flatness, although the Cheshire Cat has the pleasantly trippy touch of appearing and disappearing amidst a slowly fading puff of purplish cat-mist.

But where the movie really falls flat is the story. Bookended with an entirely non-Lewis-Carroll anecdote about Alice's all-too-dull real life, screenwriter Linda Woolverton falls into the writer's trap of the intentional fallacy: making Alice's tedious real-life tribulations over a potential marriage to an uncouth earl dull not only to Alice but to the audience as well. The throughline of Alice - which is basically a Disney-fied mashup of both of Carol's "Alice" books as well as his Jaberwocky poem - turns Alice into a modern teenager whose visit to Wonderland is an instructional lesson in having more spunk. She's decidedly older than the Alice of Wonderland (in the movie, the Wonderland story happens as but a brief flashback from a younger Alice's memory). I suppose this may have been Disney's squeamishness about too much fantasy trippiness around too young a heroine - and its desire to attract an older audience as well. That may have been a good instinct, yet Woolverton's book-end story is so second-rate to Carroll's Wonderland imagination (even Lewis Carroll never repeated the magic he struck with "Alice") that we leave the movie decidedly deflated from Burton's highlights with the Queen and the Hatter, almost as if we'd ended the film by accidentally stumbling on the last five minutes of a particularly lame after-school special. Alice, in her real life, is being married off after the death of her father to the eligible son of her father's benefactor. As the oafish bore is about to propose in front of all of London society, at the last minute, she goes chasing after the white rabbit, and falls down his rabbit hole into Wonderland. Though a few of the characters Alice meets along the way vaguely resemble the real-life she left behind, there's little to tie these two realities together, so the additional information about her real life feels not only uninspired, but unnecessary.

Wolverton also gives Alice's adventure a decidedly three-act structure (all the better for her heroine to experience the necessary Disney character arc) - with Alice's catharsis coming from learning how to take hold of the vorpal blade in a big battle between the Queen of Hearts and the White Queen (of chessboard fame, from "Through the Looking Glass"), which is also quite disappointing for those familiar with Carroll's source material, which intentionally rambles as an episodic adventure defying easy closure or movie-fied resolutions. Whether it was necessary to redefine this story as a coming-of-age fairy tale I suppose depends on who you think this movie is for. Admittedly, it is a bit of a reversal - unlike Burton's other work, where the hero is the unconventional character, in Alice, the heroine, flighty as she is, is the most conventional of the crazy characters she meets along the way. So it's only logical that she would lead the whole kit and caboodle to some kind of revolt. The kids in the audience will be all right with the lesson in leadership, I just found it all a bit, well, familiar.

Burton tries his best to break out of Wolverton's three-act straight jacket. The Queen's feistiness and self-adoration is so enjoyable that when she squeals "off with his head," as she inevitably does every few minutes, we share a wonderful guilty thrill at the moment of imperious pleasure. That's the Burton we know and love: highlighting the dark passions and endearing us to the unconventional. It's Lewis Carroll as well. It's just too bad that both of them have been stuffed into a studio tent-pole movie that's too conventional by half.

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