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From the DVD Shelf: Josh Reviews Alice in Wonderland (2010)

October 1st, 2010
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I once considered Tim Burton one of my very favorite directors, but recent years have changed that somewhat for me.  I still think he’s an extraordinary talent who has given us some incredible films, but since 1999’s Sleepy Hollow, in my opinion Mr. Burton has directed two mediocre films (Big Fish and Sweeney Todd) and two absolutely terrible films (Planet of the Apes and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory).

When I first heard that Mr. Burton would be directing an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, I thought at first that that was an inspired idea — that the weirdness of Alice in Wonderland would be a great match for Mr. Burton’s bizarre sensibilities.  But when I started seeing trailers for the film, I thought it looked terrible.  The glimpses I got of Johnny Depp’s totally wacky portrayal of the Mad Hatter didn’t interest me, the design of the film looked garish, and it seemed to me that the dark terror of Sleepy Hollow had been replaced by lowest-common-denominator all-ages pap.  For the first time that I could ever remember, here was a new Tim Burton film that I was not interested in seeing.  Once I started to read the poor reviews (and, in particular, the on-line eviscerations of the 3-D conversion), I decided to pass on seeing the film in theatres.

But, you know, it’s a new Tim Burton movie!  Even though it didn’t look like a film I would enjoy, I do admit to remaining sort of curious to see what Mr. Burton had come up with.  Was the film really as bad as it looked to me in the trailers, and as I’d read?  When I saw the film in the “new releases” section of my local video store, I decided to rent it so I could see for myself.

Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland is not a total catastrophe.  There are some bits and pieces of the film that I liked.  But as you could probably tell from my recent cartoons, I found the whole thing to be exceedingly mediocre, and quite a disappointment coming from the talented Tim Burton.

The film started off well.  I quite liked Mia Wasikowska’s performance as Alice.  She’s certainly quirky enough to feel right at home as the lead in a Tim Burton film, but her Alice also felt recognizably vulnerable and human.  Her trip down the rabbit-hole and entrance into Wonderland was sufficiently weird and spooky, and I quite liked the build-up of hints that this wasn’t Alice’s first trip to Wonderland.  That was a surprising choice on Mr. Burton’s part (and that of screenwriter Linda Woolverton), but I really dug it.  I liked the sense of history and mystory that gave the films’ story — that, despite what we might have thought, we as the audience were actually dropping into a story that had already been in progress for many years.

But things quickly went downhill from there.  There were some talented actors involved, but each seemed to be starring in his or her own movie that had absolutely nothing to do with what anyone else was doing.  I like Anne Hathaway, but I just didn’t understand what she was going for in her portrayal of the White Queen.  And I thought Johnny Depp was absolutely terrible as the Mad Hatter.  His Hatter was a collection of totally off-the-wall accents and mannerisms — sort of a whole Mike Myers comedy routine all squished into one character, including a very Myers-esque fake Irish accent — that left me completely cold.  In the Pirates of the Caribbean films, Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow felt like a real character to me, despite all of the weirdness that he brought to the performance.  Captain Sparrow was still a man that I could understand, in terms of who he was, what he wanted, and why he took certain actions.  Not so the Mad Hatter.  He seemed like a complete alien to me, and despite my love of sci-fi films, that is not a compliment in this case.  (I should also add that the totally crazy costume and make-up design given to Mr. Depp did not help matters at all.)

I did enjoy Alan Rickman’s brief appearance as the voice of the Blue Caterpillar, as well as Helena Bonham Carter’s role as the Red Queen.  Though I hated the LOOK of the Red Queen, I really loved the chewing-the-scenery mania that Ms. Bonhma Carter brought to her performance.  She was a riot.

But this brings me to the design and look of the finished film, which I really didn’t like (just as I’d feared would be the case from what I saw in the film’s trailers).  One of Tim Burton’s most endearing qualities as a director, it seems to be, has always been the slightly off-kilter look that he has always brought to the design of his films.  When I think back to Edward Scissorhands, Beetlejuice, Batman, and other early Tim Burton films, I always felt that they were wonderfully designed movies, in which every details had been paid attention to.  Mr. Burton and his teams of artists always created a world that felt totally real, and yet slightly left-of-center of our own.

But with Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and now with Alice in Wonderland, it feels to me like Mr. Burton has lost his touch with design.  Now, instead of being one step left-of-center of our own world, it seems like Mr. Burton just piles on the weirdness and the colors and the sounds to create an unending wall of craziness that pummells the audience.  Perhaps I’m exaggerating to a small degree, but I’m trying to express the way in which Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Alice in Wonderland felt OVER-designed to my eyes.  The design sense that was once subtly apparent in Mr. Burton’s films has now been applied with a sledge-hammer.

It also hurt that the visual effects were wildly inconsistent.  Some effects looked great — for example, I thought that many of the creatures (the blue caterpillar, the white rabbit, the mice) looked terrific.  But Helena Bonham Carter’s big head effect was terrible, and I thought many of the environments and extended backgrounds looked extremely weak and unconvincing.

Then there’s the story of the film.  As I’ve joked about in the past few weeks’ worth of cartoons, I thought it was pretty silly to try to impose a Joseph Campell-type “chosen hero” story-line onto Alice in Wonderland.  All of the talk about how Alice had a chosen destiny to save Wonderland just seemed like a lazy screenwriter’s way to try to shove some drama into the film.  And that the story built to Alice’s having to pick up a sword and go lead an army to fight a dragon (or, in this case, a Jabberwocky), all Lord of the Rings style, just made me laugh.

I think I’ve given this film far more words than it deserves.  Is Tim Burton’s Alice in Wonderland the worst film released this year?  Of course not, far from it.  But it’s just a disappointingly medicore offering from a once-great director.  As a fan, I hope that the next decade proves to be more creatively fruitful for Mr. Burton than the last one did.

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