Wednesday, 10 March 2010

'Alice in Wonderland' review: Of with its head!

I would consider myself a Tim Burton fan. Not a massive fan, as he’s made a few films I’m not so keen on, such as the ‘Planet of the Apes’ re-make, ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’ and ‘Corpse Bride’. But he has also made some films that should be considered classic modern fairytales, such as ‘Beetlejuice’, ‘Edward Scissorhands’ and ‘Big Fish’. He is often dismissively referred to as a visual director, but I take issue with this criticism on two levels. The first is that film is a visual medium, and a director like Burton (or Terry Gilliam, or Guillermo Del Toro), who has a unique visual style and paints with ambition and on a large canvass, should be regarded more highly than they perhaps are. The second is that I usually feel Burton’s visual style is carefully considered and becomes part of the characterisation and emotion of the film. The set direction is part of the acting in Burton. For example, Selina Kyle’s apartment in ‘Batman Returns’ was specially designed to seem claustrophobic and restrictive, which was chosen, to reflect something about the character – and not simply because Burton is obsessed with the visual at the expense of the story.

However, I would agree that Tim Burton has not been at his best this past decade. Whilst his last film, ‘Sweeney Todd’, was by all accounts a sound screen adaptation of the source material, the rest of his output over the last ten years (with the exception of ‘Big Fish’) has been a shadow of his former glory, with most of his time being spent as a hired gun on a number of big studio projects. You could be forgiven for thinking that the interesting director of those early works had disappeared. Unfortunately, this decline has not been halted by his latest film, ‘Alice in Wonderland’, a sort of sequel to Lewis Carroll’s original tale (and possibly to the 1951 animation by Burton’s paymasters at Disney who produced this film).

What little of a plot there is a riddled with holes that I probably shouldn’t go into here (especially with regards to the film’s final act) and many of the action scenes feel shoehorned in and fail to excite in any way (well the film is in 3D, and I’m discovering that 3D loves chases!). The story concerns a young-adult version of Alice, portrayed by the interesting and engaging Mia Wasikowska, who is possibly the only positive thing in this mess of a film. Alice stumbles back into Wonderland (or Underland, as we are told it is really called) whilst trying to avoid making a crucial decision about her future. Once there, Alice again meets, and fails to remember, all the familiar characters from the original tale, among them the Cheshire Cat (Stephen Fry), Tweedledum and Tweedledee (Matt Lucas) and the Mad Hatter, portrayed by Johnny Deep at his most excruciating.

Since his star-making turn in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’, this once interesting and versatile actor has become a self-parody and seems to restrict himself to increasingly miss-judged and wilfully bizarre character roles. Whilst he could once be justly considered an impressive emerging actor, he is now just an over actor, and his formerly fruitful partnership with Burton, which has seen him take some of his career best roles (in ‘Edward Scissorhands’, ‘Ed Wood’ and ‘Sleepy Hollow’), has now become a tiresome and predictable bore, with this latest performance being reminiscent of his turn as Willy Wonka in 2005s ‘Charlie and the Chocolate Factory’.

Depp’s star power sees the Mad Hatter rise to an undue prominence in this telling of the story this time around and even sees him becoming an unlikely and uncomfortable love interest for Alice. He also switches from a slightly fey, camp accent, to a Scottish one, seemingly at random, throughout the film to my extreme irritation. To make matters worse he breaks into some kind of terrible dance at the films climax, which reminded me of the mid-battle wedding performed in the last ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ film, in that it was another moment where my jaw dropped and I was forced to ask the question “has this film just gotten worse?”. Helena Bonham Carter, who probably gave her best performance for her husband in ‘Sweeney Todd’, is as perplexing as she is embarrassing in ‘Alice’, as she blatantly steals Miranda Richardson’s “Queenie” character from the second series of TVs ‘Blackadder’ to distracting and unsettling effect. It is all as terrible as it sounds, I promise you.

The films main problem lies in its complete lack of engagement with the audience. It is extremely boring and a packed cinema didn’t laugh more than twice during the entire film. I suspect its record opening grosses will not lead to potential “highest grossing ever” figures, as poor word of mouth should sink this film after the first few weeks of business. Maybe this is part of Disney’s thought process behind trying to cut short its time in cinemas and hurry it onto DVD. Probably not, but it should be the reason. I wanted to leave with scarcely half an hour gone and I know I wasn’t the only one (as my girlfriend confirmed for me afterwards).

In Jan Švankmajer's 1988 part stop-frame animated version of the tale (video clip below) the characters and the setting are given an unsettling and dark edge which Burton, freed of the Disney brief, may well have sought to replicate (especially as he has often decried to the Disney original for lacking that same edge). However, the version we have been given in this latest adaptation has no weight to it, with its CGI characters and locations looking like so much visual bubblegum and lacking all required grandeur and wonder. Terry Gilliam had the same problem last year with ‘The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus’, which lacked the usual visceral quality of his work in its imagination sequences, and so Wonderland has the same problem here in terms of tangibility. The tone and feel of the movie is not dissimilar to some beloved 1980s family adventures, like ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘The Dark Crystal’, but without that visceral (almost dirty) quality, and without any charm, it is perhaps not destined to find the same cult audience. It is also the case that 3D, which has worked so well for ‘Up’ and ‘Avatar’, has not been kind of ‘Alice’, which adds an unpleasant eye-strain to the crushing boredom.

Worst of all, none of Carroll’s trademark wit and wordplay is evident in Burton’s ‘Alice in Wonderland’, which is an especially great shame, as that is clearly the highlight of the original stories. It seems that when Burton starts re-imaging older properties, such as Wonka, ‘Planet of the Apes’ and this ‘Alice’ film, he invariably diminishes them. I very much hope his next film is smaller in scale and harkens back to his earlier days, when he seemed like a relevant (possibly even great) filmmaker. For now we can only sit back and mourn his artistic decline, whilst he and Disney laugh all the way to the bank.

'Alice in Wonderland' is playing at multiplexes throughout the UK (despite weeks of grandstanding) and is rated 'PG' by the BBFC. If you want to hand Disney some money, check out 'The Princess and the Frog' which is far better.

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