Sunday, March 7, 2010

Alice In Burtonland

Sometimes I feel like saying that all of our greatest directors suck. Like, Avatar seems more like a Cameron parody than an actual Cameron movie. Spielberg? Tell me the last Indy movie didn't seem like a parody of the previous ones.

And now we have Tim Burton's Alice in Wonderland. Tim Burton kind of pioneered the whole CGI/live-action mix with Mars Attacks! which is a fun movie, even if highly flawed and a little hard on the eyes (or so it seemed at the time).

But, see, here's the thing: While Mars Attacks! is sort of funny, wacky, and even a bit whimsical, it's a dark sort of whimsy. Burton is not exactly what you'd call light-hearted. Even Pee-Wee's Big Adventure has a dark edge—but that works really well, there, since the whole Pee Wee schtick is silly.

So, while it might seem like a natural fit—the quirky, artistic Burton taking on the quirky, artistic Lewis Caroll—the result is, of course, more Burton than Carroll, with all the lightness and humor of the latter buried in the gothic sensibilities of the former.

Worse yet, this isn't even good Burton. Wonderland is in ruins, smoky and barren. But even in flashbacks or at the (inevitable) happy ending, Burton can't muster a truly cheerful, much less joyous, picture of Wonderland. The whole thing is emotionally and artistically muted.

It doesn't help that we've seen this before. Well, you probably haven't. But over ten years ago, American McGee's Alice had a similar plot and actually a nicer look. Obviously Disney wasn't going to go this dark under any circumstances, but then why team up with Burton?

Wait, didn't Burton get fired from Disney?

Well, that was billions of dollars ago, if it's even true.

What we have in Disney's Tim Burton's Lewis Carroll's Alice In Wonderland is a sort-of sequel to a mash-up of the classic children's tales Alice's Adventures In Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass. In it, a grown up Alice avoids an awkward, highly public marriage proposal by escaping down a rabbit hole.

Ah, but she's been down this rabbit hole before, she just doesn't remember. She thought she was simply dreaming. Well, Underland, as it styles itself is in a pickle. The Red Queen has used the Jabberwock and the Bandersnatch to lay waste to everything and rule in terror. It's up to Alice to remember who she is and bring about the frabjous day foretold in the Oracular.

So, yeah, Alice by way of Narnia.

The Flower and The Boy liked it well enough.

To me it seemed awful familiar. Like the tree with the rabbit hole? A less sinister version of Sleepy Hollow's head tree. Johnny Depp looking more like a fruitier Wonka than the Mad Hatter. Helena Bonham Carter's enormous head was kind of cool and disturbing. She really seemed convincing when she yelled "Off with their heads!"

But Anne Hathaway as the White Queen reminded me so much of Ichabod Crane's (Depp, again) mother (former Burton paramour Lisa Marie) that I began to fear for the future of Burton and Bonham Carter's children.

What's interesting to me is that the movie's bookends—the story of Alice outside of Wonderland—is classic Burton. Alice is an oddball, and she doesn't fit in, though practically she must (or so it seems). Here is the Edward Scissorhands, the Ed Wood, the Jack Skellington, even, or the better parts of Wonka (where he's not coping with his daddy issues).

Her oddness drives the movie by creating some tension for the rest of the characters to play against.

Once in Wonderland? Dead stop. She's not really odd by Wonderland standards, after all, and the Burton-esque tension goes slack as she sort of mopes her way through a plot obvious enough to make Uncle Walt blush. I mean, it goes out of its way to tell you what's going to happen.

Burton's movies all basically boil down to oddball vs. normies. It's one of the reasons Batman Returns was so awful. To him it's not heroes and villains, as comic books traditionally are, but oddballs and regular people. He identifies with the oddballs, so the Penguin comes off as sympathetic rather than evil.

Similarly, here we have oddballs versus oddballs. And the whole thing is ridiculously heavy-handed. I mean, I sort of get that: I love the original story, but it's not really full of warm characters suitable for plush toy merchandising. The characters are memorable, but it's an intellectual story, full of puns and illogic, not emotion.

Here, the characters are largely unmemorable, except for what you sort of remember from your previous encounters with the story. The Mad Hatter wants to be a Scarecrow-esque companion to Alice's Dorothy (heh, you following that?) but he just reminds you of better sidekicks.

And, weirdly, every now and again Depp channels Mel Gibson as Braveheart. The Flower liked that: "He's talking like Shrek!" I couldn't figure it out. I think it was to shoehorn him into a heroic character somehow.

So, the characters that get the most time, character-wise are Alice (Mia Wasikowska), the Queen (Carter) and the Knave of Hearts, played by Crispin Glover. (Fun trivia: Glover came within a hair's breadth of being Edward Scissorhands.)

The villains, in other words, are the most clearly drawn, apart from Alice.

There are a few other good points, too. A conflicted basset hound (Timothy Spall), the frumious bandersnatch. I giggle like an idiot at a lot of parts simply because I recognized the Burton repertory player. Christopher Lee as the Jabberwock? Sure, why not.

Overall, I'm afraid it was a big heaping plate of meh. Not Burtony enough. Not Carrolly enough. Didn't sacrifice enough narrative logic to capture the zaniness of the source material. Didn't sacrifice enough of the zaniness of the source to connect emotionally.

I liked Elfman's score, though. There were several points where outright "you're nothing but a deck of cards" moments were spared by virtue of a convincing score.

Recommended for Burton (or Hathaway) completists only.


  1. The Flower and The Boy liked it well enough.

    That's kinda what I was looking to hear.

  2. Okay, I didn't see the movie yet I'm positive that blake nailed it when he said the problem is the lack of joy. Or more accurately the inability on the part of Burton to project joy. At the risk of sounding like a pompous ass the problem is the age we are living in, an age which won't permit joy. I'm talking at the official level, and "Hollywood" is nothing if not official. Of course there is joy at the personal level, the level at which mere humans, we, exist. But the official line is the leftist line and the leftist line is that the world is a horrible place and will go on being a horrible place until all is made right by the final and total triumph of, you guessed it, the Left. Burton, for all I know, may not have a political bone in his body but as a creature of the official establishment he MUST project its dank underground vision. Which of course is 180 degrees wrong for Alice In Wonderland: a joy saturated work.

  3. That was excellent, ricpic. That's what I got from Blake's review as well (and most of Burton's films).

    We're not gonna let them take our joy are we? ;-)

  4. Well, there is a kind of nihilism that accompanies the anti-West propaganda. So it's probably connected regardless of the politics.

  5. I decided from the trailers that i did not want to see this. So I got from Netflix the 1966 Jonathan Miller version. Score by Ravi Shankar. Not much joy at all. Young Alice is adrift in a dream that's not quite a nightmare, but awfully close to it. Still — as a movie, it's so nice I watched it twice, the second time with Miller's commentary.

    Going back to the source, the book is funny, but not joyful. The jokes are logical jokes, not happy jokes.

    Miller says that BBC cut about half an hour out of the movie. So that puts this in the class of massacred masterpieces, along with "The Magnificent Ambersons" and -- I'm sure you know of some more.

    Now I am waiting (not much longer) for the W.C. Fields, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant "Alice in Wonderland." Which has also been cut. But what can you do? The good with the bad.

    The Miller "Alice" DVD includes as a special feature the 1903 (!) Hepworth version, a historical curiosity, worth seeing. Some interesting special effects, considering when it was made — mostly done with double exposures.

  6. Hector,

    I'm not sure I agree. The book is rather cerebral and, yes, not joyful in the way that, I dunno, "Wizard of Oz" would be.

    But there is an exuberance there. A joy of creation, if you like, rather than dramatic joy. It's sort of like watching Ruth Anne and Michael and Pollo make puns on Twitter.

    The book is clever and exults in its own absurd existence.

    This movie lacks that kind of exuberance and, say, the joy of life and victory of a Narnia. It's emotionally muted. The Burton of Beetlejuice and Ed Wood seems to have gone missing.


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