Friday, March 5, 2010

Review: "Alice in Wonderland"


That's my one-word review of Tim Burton's "Alice in Wonderland." Why does this movie exist? Does it add anything to the Lewis Carroll stories? Does it have a purpose for being beyond dollars-and-cents rationalizing? If it had never been made, would the cinematic world be poorer for it?

I've been a fan of director Tim Burton's comically twisted sensibilities for a long time, but lately he's in a rut. Rather than pursuing original stories ("Edward Scissorhands") or loopy take-offs on reality ("Ed Wood"), he's tackling big-budget revivals of well-known intellectual properties -- "Sweeney Todd," "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," "Planet of the Apes."

Burton's gone from being one of the most vibrant, freshest voices in Hollywood to the king of the remakes. His distinctive style has been packaged and co-opted. You can practically hear the moneymen plotting:

"Hey, no one's made an 'Alice' movie in awhile, let's do it up with a lot of CG for the animals and add in some battle scenes for the teens and slather on some of that Tim Burton kookiness. And we'll get Johnny Depp to do one of his over-the-top nutty characters."

Speaking of which: The eclectic voices that call out to Depp have often aimed true -- his Keith-Richards-meets-Pepe-Le-Pew take on Captain Jack Sparrow made the first "Pirates of the Caribbean" a delectable mash-up of spectacle and spontaneity. But it had gotten old by the second go-round, and his Michael Jackson-inspired Willy Wonka was just strange for the sake of strangeness.

Ditto for his Mad Hatter, who seems to put on his personalities like he does his blue-and-pink makeup. One minute Hatter, as he's nicknamed, is speaking in a rambling, lisping spray of non-sequitors ("How is a raven like a writing desk?"), and then he switches into a strident Scottish brogue.

By the end of the film, he even gets a big ol' Braveheart sword to complete the strange ensemble.

The Hatter, of course, was only a minor player in the original novel by Lewis Carroll, but here he's elevated to sidekick/muse for Alice (Mia Wasikowska).

Carroll actually wrote two Alice books, and most movie versions have simply crammed together characters and story elements from each. This new film (screenplay by Linda Woolverton) goes one further, by essentially positing itself as a sequel.

Alice is now 19 and about to be married off to a haughty young lord, and is plagued by dreams about white rabbits and red queens. Little does she realize these are actually memories from her childhood visit to Wonderland (or Underland, as the natives insist is the correct name).

A quick dash down the rabbit hole, and a few rapid changes in size later, Alice stumbles upon the White Rabbit, Dormouse, Tweedledum and Tweedledee, and the Blue Caterpillar. It seems in her absence the Red Queen has usurped the crown of the White Queen (Anne Hathaway), and is ordering the lopping off of heads at a prodigious rate.

Computer imagery is incorporated into many of the characters. The animals are all CG, but even the Red Queen (played by Helena Bonham Carter) has her head swelled to watermelon proportions. (Depp's eyes are similarly super-sized.)

Alice sets off on a search for the Vorpal Blade, guarded by a Bandersnatch, to be used against the fearsome serpent Jabberwocky at the climactic battle on Frabjous Day -- all bits, by the way, contained in Carroll's nonsense poetry. Oh, and Hatter will celebrate by doing his Futterwhacken dance.

Considered apart, some of these ornaments are amusing enough in their own right. But taken together, Burton's "Alice in Wonderland" is an exercise in cynical regurgitation.

1.5 stars

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