Thursday, March 18, 2010

Alice in Wonderland

No doubt everyone has heard and likely already seen Tim Burton's remake\revisit\sequel whatchamacallit based on Lewis Carroll's beloved druggie absurdest tale Alice in Wonderland. Only this time, right on the throes of Avatar it's presented as a 3-D extravaganza. And in the fashion of a big-time Disney film meeting the creative mind of Mr. Burton and his collective muses Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter, this Alice has the sort of magic of corporate branding, rather than movie joy. Which is odd because it's that movie joy that always Burton's gift to cinema. Only now, in a film that really seems like a great fit, that gift is reduced to a dithering, meandering, particularly dull affair. That gothic sense of humor, along with that innocence that permeated Burton's best work (Ed Wood, Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice) feels so stifled. Even the production values, which are always top of the line in a Burton film, kind of look a bit shoddy here, or at least derivative. That sense of awe in a late 80s\early 90s Burton film seems to be slowly filtering away to allure of conglomerative dollar signs.

In this incarnation, written by Linda Woolverton (Beauty & the Beast) and loosely based on Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, Through the Looking Glass and Jabberwocky, Alice is 19 and returning to Wonderland from a long absence since childhood. The concept is that she believed it was all a dream in the first place. She's living in a very Victorian London, dreading a future as a wife to dull duke, and hopelessly in search of a very independent, if anachronistic, life of her own. The brightest spot, and indeed really the only silver lining, is the beguiling young actress playing Alice. Mia Wasikowska is charming and completely enjoyable, gently giving a fresh spin and lovely sense of humor to the precedings. She's definitely one to watch for.

As she falls down the rabbit, she meets the Wonderland usuals-- Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the Cheshire Cat, the Mad Hatter (decorated to max for Johnny Depp), the evil Queen of Hearts (for Ms. Carter), and the etereral White Queen (Anne Hatheway.) The story, which oddly seems to channel everything from The Chronicles of Narnia to The Matrix-- Alice's return is seen as prophetic, as she is the only one who can save Wonderland (or Underland, as it called) from the ruins caused by the Queen of Hearts. The only way to do that is to slay the nefarious Jabberwocky. The suffering element of this very oddly paced film is that there's so much overstuffed plotting in the way, that a cohesive story really doesn't exist. Not that that really is supposed to matter; this is Tim Burton's Wonderland, it's supposed to reveal in that magical production design and Danny Elfman scored oddness. And it's in 3-D! Except that for it's colorful moments, the film seems to sputter and dull out on us very early on in the film. As for the 3-D-- well it's no Pandora.

For a perplexing film, I was left ruminating on the very talented and wasted potential of Depp and Carter. The Mad Hatter and the Queen of Hearts play right up to their specialities, but this time it left rather a bad taste in my mouth. I long to see these two playing actual characters; they're both very good at that, and here playing cartoons for the seemingly umpteenth time, only raised the already derivative quotient. Depp, for his measure, did give us a slight respite last summer tackling John Dillinger in Public Enemies, but that doesn't feel quite enough. Is he forever tapped to play cartoony characters in theme park movies. As grand as his Jack Sparrow role was, has it ruined the very potential of one of cinema's most sparkling actors. And Carter, always pleasing as a manical drama queen possibly needs a break from Burton; I almost miss her humble beginnings in Merchant Ivory films. C-

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